Chemical engineer questions Belledune hydrogen plan

·3 min read
Belledune wants to get in on a plan to send green hydrogen to Germany. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Belledune wants to get in on a plan to send green hydrogen to Germany. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

A chemical engineer says there's a lot of unanswered questions about the viability and future of green hydrogen.

Canada and Germany announced a plan to send green liquefied hydrogen from Newfoundland and Labrador to ports in Germany to help the European nation wean itself off fossil fuels largely imported from Russia.

While the first plant will be in Newfoundland, the Port of Belledune is also looking to get into the business and has already signed a memorandum of understanding with a German port to deliver hydrogen by 2027.

But Paul Martin, the Toronto-based co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, said the business case for liquefied hydrogen really isn't clear.

The coalition describes itself as promoting an "evidence-based viewpoint" on how hydrogen is used to combat climate change.

This includes advocating for hydrogen not being integrated into existing fossil fuel grids, producing hydrogen using renewable energy and promoting the local production and use of hydrogen to avoid wasting energy

The process uses energy to break down water into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen.

Step backwards

Martin said the process takes a lot of time, money and effort for what is essentially a step backward in terms of energy.

"We're turning electricity, which is really valuable … and we're turning it into heat … and that's a step backwards in thermodynamics terms," said Martin.

"When you take a step backwards in sort of dynamic terms, you're taking a step backwards in value as well. It's worth less than the electricity is to start with."

Martin said hydrogen would be difficult to transport across the ocean because it will need to be cooled into a liquid state first, loaded on a ship, and then reheated when it arrives to be turned back into a gas.

Each step takes additional energy, so it may not be a great deal for Germany.

"By the time you get to the other end, you've paid for 10 units of electricity and in Germany you get one to two units of electricity back again," said Martin.

Mass production

Martin said there aren't a lot of places producing green hydrogen on a mass scale, as is proposed in Atlantic Canada.

While there may be places where it makes sense, they don't look like Canada.

"There are some places in the world where there's this magical special set of circumstances," said Martin.

"There are places where there's a desert, which has an ocean to the West."

Martin said the sunny weather in these places is optimal for daytime solar power collection.

And at night, when the land cools, the ocean produces wind, which can power wind turbines.

Also, since these are deserts, there are few people around who need electricity, so there's an incentive to produce and export hydrogen.

"That doesn't exist in Canada," said Martin.

"That exists in places like Chile and Western Australia and maybe the west coast of Africa."