Science behind NB Power's hydrogen venture too good to be true, critic says

Two partners in what they claim is a revolutionary new clean-energy technology are sounding different notes about just how revolutionary it is.

The CEO of Florida company Joi Scientific, which has sold the technology to NB Power, says while the new hydrogen-energy process could lead to "the world's first zero carbon grid" in New Brunswick, it doesn't break the laws of physics.

But NB Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas said after seeing firsthand seawater turned into hydrogen energy, he believes the process lives up to its hype.

Thomas told CBC News that he and his colleagues "came out of there actually believing that it's possible, this energy in-and-out, based on what we see in the lab."

'Too good to be true'

Critics are warning that Joi's claims that its secret process can produce more energy than what's required to power it is not realistic.

"This sounds too good to be true," said Vancouver energy consultant Michael Barnard. "And it is."

This is Nobel Prize-winning stuff and it's obviously not viable. -Michael Barnard

It's impossible for ratepayers to know for sure because both the utility and Joi say revealing how it works now would tip off competitors.

Barnard said several of the claims would violate one of the fundamental laws of thermodynamics: that in a closed system, energy can only be transformed, not created or destroyed.

Among the assertions: A promotional video on Joi's website said the process "takes a tiny amount of energy to start a chemical process, making enough hydrogen to power the process itself and generate plenty more for use in fuel cells and engines and boilers."

More energy out than in

One of Joi's patents claims the process generates "200 per cent" of the energy put into it.

"For one watt of input energy, two watts of energy in the form of hydrogen gas is achieved," the patent says.

And NB Power vice-president Brett Plummer told a Senate committee last month that the research and development is focused on "making sure that we can get more energy out of the process than goes into the process."

Michael Heenan/CBC

Barnard likens Joi's claims to "saying you have a machine that works on cake. You have a cake, you put it in the machine, you press a button, it produces not only the cake you had, but a new cake. So you sell or eat the cake, and you put the cake back in the box.

"This is Nobel Prize-winning stuff and it's obviously not viable."

NB Power first revealed in December 2017 it was working with a private company on hydrogen, though it waited until February of this year to identify Joi.

The laws of physics 

Willy Cook, who teaches chemical engineering at the University of New Brunswick, visited Joi's Florida lab and said he was impressed by what he saw, but "whether that substantiates the claims that they're getting a two-for-one, I can't go into that.

"From what I've seen I do not believe Joi Scientific is breaking any laws of thermodynamics."

CBC

Traver Kennedy, CEO of Joi Scientific, told CBC News said that "if you're only going to count the electricity, it would certainly appear" to violate those laws.

"But just to clarify, we do not believe that in doing this, we're breaking any laws of physics. Especially not the first law of thermodynamics. We're just not that clever, and we don't think that can be done or that it's true."

Some sceptical of new technology 

But Thomas said the claim of more energy out than in is legit.

"We have seen results indicating, clearly indicating, independently witnessed, that it does produce more energy than in," Gaëtan Thomas said in an interview.

Thomas said people are skeptical because the technology is so new. He said it's not a chemical process, like existing and better-known methods for generating hydrogen power.

But Joi's video calls it a chemical process.

This is new technology that could benefit the whole country. -Gaëtan Thomas, NB Power CEO 

Kennedy will only say that Joi uses the "the latent energy" in seawater, which is impossible in a conventional process like electrolysis.

The details, along with third-party verifications, remain secret for now.

"We can't talk about the technology in a public forum without eliminating our ability to file new patents because it would be in the public domain," Kennedy said.

"In order to keep all of our licensees, including New Brunswick Power, safe and to have their licences have meaningful value, we need to be careful about what we divulge."

Expert cautions EUB

Barnard said Kennedy's comments about using the "latent energy" in seawater doesn't change his assessment of the claims.

"It doesn't matter whether it's heat or electricity, you can't get more energy out than you put in," he said. "Yes, there is hydrogen in water, but it's stably bonded to oxygen and requires more energy, of any type, to extract than you get."

A U.S. energy expert has also sounded a cautious note, telling the Energy and Utilities Board that NB Power should not be funding the research out of its own budget.

Robert Knecht, a Massachusetts energy consultant hired by public intervener Heather Black, writes that with NB Power already planning annual rate increases of two per cent in its 10-year plan, "it becomes problematic to ask ratepayers to fund these research projects."

He said the research may be worthwhile but the provincial government should be funding it.

Kennedy says NB Power has paid Joi $10 million US or $13 million Cdn in licensing fees for the technology.

Of that, $6.7 million came from the Regional Development Corporation and the remainder from NB Power's own research budget.

Thomas said there is a potential impact on rates, "but when the risk of doing nothing causes a bigger impact on rates, we have to take the steps."

University of New Brunswick

He said with the federal carbon tax set to increase every year until 2022, the relatively small expense on the research is worth the risk if it leads to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The $13 million licensing fee will give NB Power the first right to use the technology for power generation. It can then market the technology outside New Brunswick and share in the profits.

If the technology works on a large enough scale, the coal-fired Belledune plant could be converted to partly run on seawater from the nearby Bay of Chaleur.

The other alternative would be multiple smaller hydrogen generating plans — as many as 20 or 30 — around the province.

NB Power is talking to a manufacturer in Asia that would build the units. Thomas said it may take federal funding, or outside investment, to make it possible.  

"This is new technology that could benefit the whole country," he said.

Testing still going on

Bruce MacFarlane, a spokesperson for the Regional Development Corporation, said "no other future payments are planned at this time" to NB Power for hydrogen.

Thomas said there's still "some debate" on the technology because it remains to be seen if the small experiments in Joi's lab can be reproduced on a large scale.

In written answers to the Energy and Utilities Board, NB Power's plans for having a prototype ready within two or three years are blacked out.

The document says that "advances in the laboratory prototype have been achieved and validated. Testing continues on the further development and scale-up of the prototype to a commercial prototype."

Under the heading "seawater to hydrogen," NB Power says in written answers that it forecasts "capital expenditures of this nature in the amount of $5 million in each year of the [10-year] plan" for the "referenced technology."

Utility won't get money back if testing fails

That would total $50 million, but NB Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau said that money is a "placeholder for unplanned/unexpected capital projects that may come up" in a given year and the money "has not been designated to Hydrogen."

But Thomas said some of it could be allocated to hydrogen if it becomes commercially viable.

NB Power is paying Joi what it calls a "reimbursable" licensing fee to become the first user of the company's technology in generating stations.

 "When it [the technology] works, it will be reimbursable to NB Power," Thomas said.

If it doesn't work, Thomas said, NB Power won't be repaid, but the amount is small relative to the potential benefit.

Thomas has been named to Joi's board of directors, but neither he nor NB Power owns any stake in Joi, and Thomas isn't paid for his board duties.

Kennedy said Thomas was put on the board to have "direct insight into the goings-on of the company, what we're doing, how we're spending our time, how we're spending our money."

But Thomas said it's his experience with managing large projects that brings "value" to the Joi board and helps him grow that company.