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expert reaction to conference abstract looking at extracting hydrogen from oil sands

An abstract, being presented at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference, reports that Scientists have developed a method for extracting hydrogen gas from oil sands and oil fields.


Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Director, The Royal Institution, said:

“There’s a simple way to confirm the claims – have the authors lay out the chemical equations and the associated energy inputs/outputs.  At the moment the words say “inject O2 and get H2 out with no other products”.  Clearly this is not the whole story as there are other inputs (namely the oil) and other products which remain in the ground.  I don’t know why the authors have omitted to share the chemical reaction process in the briefing when they have already filed a patent.”


Dr Jeremy Tomkinson, Company Director and CEO, Lead Consultant Traditional and Advanced Biofuels, NNFCC The Bioeconomy Consultants, said:

“Making hydrogen from hydrocarbons using oxygen is nothing new – the trick is not releasing the CO2 to the atmosphere.  It would be really exciting if they had found a way of carbonating it in situ i.e. producing hydrogen and turning the residual carbon into CO3 to make carbonate rocks, if not, how are they ensuring the carbonaceous gases remain locked underground – letting them go to atmosphere would result in no difference to burning the oil above ground at far less energy burden.”


Miles Seaman, Member of Energy Centre Board, Institution of Chemical Engineers, said:

“The growing importance of hydrogen as a major energy vector in the context of delivering zero carbon energy means that the technology described by Proton Energy is relevant.  However the broad idea of underground gasification has been explored previously and has identified various difficulties in implementing it for fossil fuel reservoirs generally.  The use of oxygen (i.e. oxy-gassification) is not new.  However the overall concept will require the successful development of several components (e.g. management of gasification in the reservoir, sub surface separation of hydrogen).  Notwithstanding these and other technical issues the concept could prove to be a significant source of zero carbon energy.”


Dr Peter Clough, Lecturer in Energy Engineering, Cranfield University, said:

“Oil sands are renowned for being one of the most environmentally damaging and controversial sources of fossil fuels, however this technology offers a potential alternative via deep mining of the oil sands, thereby avoiding a lot of the environmental impacts that arise from surface mining of oil sands.

“My main concern for this technology is the amount of oxygen that is required for injection into the well and whether the economics still work in their favour if the oxygen is sourced from an air separation unit, which will increase the cost of hydrogen production significantly (air separation units are the most common and large scale commercial available method of separating oxygen from air).”


Prof Geoffrey Maitland, Professor of Energy Engineering, Imperial College London, said:

“For many years engineers have been looking at the possibilities of sub-surface processing of heavy hydrocarbons and using the reservoir as a reactor to convert these generally low-grade and solid-like oils, which are very expensive to recover in their own right, into higher value products.  One route is to convert a tar sand reservoir into a gas (either methane or hydrogen) reservoir and many investigations into in situ combustion and hydrocarbon catalytic conversion have been carried out over the years.  The injection of oxygen suggest that this new process involves such in situ combustion and hydrocarbon oxidation processes.

“A key challenge to overcome is to separate the high value products, in this case hydrogen, from the other reaction products, particularly CO2 and other gaseous components such as methane, from the hydrogen is such a way that the greenhouse gases and impurities are either kept underground or captured at the surface and either re-injected into the reservoir or useable as by-products.  A second challenge is to carry out the underground extraction process at a viable cost and with minimal external energy requirements which would themselves generate CO2 emissions.  One technology that has been considered to give high quality, low cost product separation is selective gas membranes.  These could be deployed in the reservoir, in the wellbores transporting the product gases to the surface or at the surface itself on the production rig.  The use of the term ‘filters’ suggests that this is the technology being deployed here by the University of Calgary and Proton Technologies Inc.

“If the claims of this press release and the associated abstract/conference presentation are valid, then a low-cost high purity hydrogen generation process like this could have a major impact on exploiting heavy oil and tar sand reserves in an economic way in the future.  Indeed such a process could equally be applied to conventional oil reservoirs to generate hydrogen, particularly to extract value from depleted oil and gas reservoirs where further recovery of the hydrocarbon as oil is uneconomic and the environmental pressures to use less oil increase.  The market for hydrogen will undoubtedly increase dramatically over coming decades as it is seen as a major route to decarbonising heating as well as a fuel for decarbonised transport (directly or via fuel cells) and for clean electricity generation using hydrogen gas turbines.  To assess its viability more information will be required about the details of the product separation process, the ways in which the underground combustion/oxidation process can be controlled within the oil sand reservoir and the plans for scaling the process up from any exploratory laboratory and pilot scale studies to the actual reservoir scale.  A thorough evaluation of the cradle-to-grave costs and emissions of the full process will also be required.”


Abstract title: ‘Clean hydrogen production (only!) from heavy oil reservoirs’ by Ian Gates et al.

This is a conference abstract from the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference, and was under embargo until 23:05 UK time on Monday 19 August 2019.

There is no paper as this is not published work.


Declared interests

Dr Peter Clough: “I have no interests to declare.”

Miles Seaman: “I have no interests in this technology.”

Prof Geoffrey Maitland: “I am Director of the Shell Digital Rocks programme at Imperial, which is fully sponsored by Shell and have previously managed research programmes on Carbon Storage directly funded by fossil fuel companies – principally Shell and Qatar Petroleum.  Although I have done research on the feasibility of underground hydrocarbon processing, none of this has been funded by oil and gas companies.”

None others received.

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