Hydrogen, the next big thing in Canadian energy?

Q&A with Proton Technologies’ Grant Strem to discuss the future of zero-emission hydrogen energy.

Interview by John Bayko
Grant Strem of Proton Technologies (left) recently recorded a WeldCor Supplies CAODC Podcast with John Bayko, Vice President of Communications.

When you think about hydrogen, the first thing that comes to mind likely isn’t an affordable energy resource that could heat your home or fuel up your truck. However, Grant Strem of Calgary-based Proton Technologies wants to change that. Proton Technologies was started in 2015 to redefine the energy sector and is dedicated to proving, patenting, and commercializing the technology needed to heat a reservoir to free hydrogen and extract it as gas and heat. The technology is CO2 free, leverages existing infrastructure that is relied on in oil and gas, and has a low environmental impact. Strem recently showcased his technology to Dragons’ Den Canada and time will tell if it becomes a mainstream option and economic game-changer for western Canada — you might even see Strem on your television screen.

Read below to find out more about this emerging energy source and what’s next for Proton Technologies.

Proton Technologies’ Hydrogen steam reforming set up. Photo by Grant Strem.
JB: What are the most common methods for hydrogen production?

GS: The most common method is a process called steam methane reforming, which involves burning natural gas to turn water into high-pressure steam and then harvesting most of the hydrogen off of the steam. Ours is a similar process, we do steam reforming in the ground, using unswept oil as the fuel. With our process, we still need oilfields, we still need rigs, we still need basically all the set-up and infrastructure used for oil and gas, only repurposed into this new clean energy direction.

JB: What have the traditional barriers been to hydrogen becoming a more prevalent fuel source?

GS: In large part, it was the cost of hydrogen and that’s what’s changing. Over the last 20 years, there have been dramatic improvements in both hydrogen storage tanks and also the cost of the fuel cells themselves. In the past people were talking about the hydrogen economy and it never materialized because the technology wasn’t quite there and the cost of hydrogen was too high. Fuel cells can now be made much cheaper and much smaller. Now that all the technologies are in place, the one thing people are looking at is how to make hydrogen cheaper. That’s where Proton comes in.

JB: What are the emissions like in terms of producing hydrogen?

GS: With steam methane reforming, there are a lot of carbon dioxide emissions, and of course there are carbon taxes and a strong dislike for carbon dioxide in the western world. So, the best way is to leave the carbon in the ground, and that’s what our process does. We have downhole hydrogen filters so all of the reactions can happen down there. We actually are making CO2 in the ground, but it just stays there. Kind of like carbon sequestration or capture and storage, only we never bring it to surface in the first place.

JB: Can you explain the process and the resources that come from Proton Technologies’ method of hydrogen extraction?

GS: The main resources we get out of the ground are oil and hydrogen. When we add oxygen to an oilfield, it adds a lot of thermal energy. If we have viscous oil, that extra energy goes towards mobilizing the oil. Currently, our revenue stream is coming from oil and that’s what’s going to be paying for our next steps on the hydrogen side. I think it’s a metaphor for how the industry will look when companies start doing this to their oilfields. It really gets the oil production surging while also offering a new revenue stream in the form of hydrogen, which companies can use onsite to upgrade their oil. There are lots of up and coming uses in a low-cost hydrogen environment.

JB: How did Proton Technologies get started?

GS: We started four years ago and have been growing ever since. We started with a lab demo and then purchased an oilfield and did a hydrogen separation demonstration two years ago. It was a simple idea, a recognition that all projects where air or oxygen are injected into an oilfield create hydrogen as one of the byproducts in the gas stream. Some have higher concentrations than others and so we’ve had to figure that out so that we can maximize the amount of hydrogen we make. With hydrogen, we don’t have to worry about many reservoir features that we need to worry about in oil production, such as permeability. For example, if a company has a very large oilfield that’s no longer economically feasible, they can just oxidize all that oil and the energy goes towards creating hydrogen from the water that’s in the reservoir.

JB: Can you put CAODC members to work extracting hydrogen?

GS: Yes, actually. Our intention is to drill our first dedicated hydrogen well this summer. I think that drilling these hydrogen wells is going to be very popular on a worldwide basis and I live in Canada, so this is going to be the epicenter.

JB: What does the market look like for hydrogen today?

GS: Most people in upstream oil and gas are unfamiliar with it, but there’s a huge existing market for hydrogen. About half of all hydrogen production goes towards upgrading oil and gas at refineries to turn it into diesel. Worldwide, there’s about a $165 billion USD of hydrogen revenue. The rest of hydrogen is almost all used up in making fertilizer. Those are the historic uses of it. Now that we can make hydrogen much cheaper than natural gas, I think it’s going to become popular to put it through turbines to make electricity and put it in pipelines. There are already communities in Europe powered on hydrogen and I’ve heard there are plans for one in Alberta.

JB: What’s next for the future of energy and Proton Technologies?

GS: I think there’s going to be an enormous demand destruction for heavy oil and oil sands in Canada. It leaves us wondering what’s next and how do we stay relevant? We have these huge resources, we just have to repurpose them as clean energy and that’s how I think that Alberta and western Canada can become an energy superpower, supplying enormous volumes of clean hydrogen to the rest of the world. In Alberta, we have over 2 trillion barrels of oil, that is a lot of fuel for driving steam reforming reactions. The amount of hydrogen we can take from that while leaving all the stuff we don’t want in the ground, it’s actually hard to fathom. It’s truly staggering how much energy we can produce as clean energy from the oilfields. It’s going to revitalize our communities, it’s going to revitalize the infrastructure that we spent over 50 years building to be leveraged in a new clean direction so people are back to work, and towns are back to work.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our full interview with Grant Strem on the WeldCor Supplies CAODC Podcast at caodc.podbean.com. If you’d like to learn more about Proton Technologies, please visit their website at www.proton.energy.