Most of the hydrogen consumed in Canada is produced using steam methane reforming, a process that generates some greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But a collaboration between Suncor and KWI Polymers (KWI), a small Quebec-based cleantech developer, could materially change this.
Since 2021, the two companies have partnered on a project to scale up a novel turquoise hydrogen technology. (This process uses petroleum products as an input, but is driven by heat rather than the combustion of fossil fuels, resulting in little or no GHG emissions.) Their project offers the potential to generate a clean low-cost hydrogen as well as a valuable carbon black (black material produced from the carbon in hydrocarbons) for use in multiple industrial end products.
Not surprisingly, the two partners have big hopes for this project. And so do others in the industry. Recently the project was selected as a finalist in the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN)’s Low Emission Fuels and Products Technology Competition (more on this later) and has been recommended to receive funding for technology scaleup.
So, how did this project come about?
Project starts with nano-engineering concept
To answer that, first a bit of background on KWI.
Located in the Montreal area, KWI manufactures solutions to reduce the environmental impact of various industries. One of their specialties is using nano-engineering to create different polymers and additives with unique properties. In 2012, KWI happened to be collaborating with researchers at the University of Sherbrooke on different products. One day, a university researcher approached Yves Laroche, KWI’s president and founder, about a new application.
“The researcher said, ‘We’ve developed a way to produce a carbon nanofiber which can be obtained from different hydrocarbon materials. Are you interested?” remembers Laroche.
Saying “yes,” Laroche committed to set up a research study with the university. Over the next four years, KWI and university researchers explored ideas together in laboratory. Gradually a new plasma-based technology began to emerge.
“We developed a heat-driven process technology that can split any hydrocarbon material into hydrogen and solid carbon with low emissions. The process allows us to produce a high value carbon that is structured at the nano or even atomic level,” Laroche explains.
New partnership with Suncor
With the research advancing, Laroche began to think about finding an industry partner for the application, starting in the local petrochemical industry.
“We knew the petroleum industry has a major need for clean hydrogen,” Laroche says.
In 2020, Laroche approached Suncor, which operates a large refinery in the Montreal area. Initially he proposed using KWI’s new technology to recycle waste plastic into a saleable product. Then, at Suncor’s suggestion, their conversation turned to the possibility of using KWI’s technology to transform natural gas to create a cleaner source of hydrogen.
Both companies began to see new possibilities.
Suncor is Canada’s largest producer and consumer of hydrogen, using hydrogen in a variety of refining and upgrading operations. The company sees hydrogen as an important emerging clean energy option as it works toward its goal to be net zero by 2050. And in the case of KWI’s technology, Suncor began to see a scalable solution that could produce both clean hydrogen and a valuable carbon byproduct potentially at their refineries.
“The KWI team was open to using methane as a feedstock, and that’s where we got quite interested,” says Kelly Campbell, Suncor’s director of technology development, clean energy and hydrogen.
KWI, for its part, was interested in working with a major partner to scale up its technology to commercialization.
“Suncor could bring to the table the understanding of the real industrial conditions that are needed to fully advance this technology,” Laroche says.
CRIN funding to scale up technology
In early 2021, Suncor established a partnership with KWI. Then, in February this year, the partnership got a major boost when their project was identified for $10 million in funding through the CRIN competition, made possible by the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF). With this investment, the two companies will work collaboratively to scale up the technology. KWI will complete testing of the technology at the university, with feedback from Suncor. Their goal is to ultimately set up a field demonstration producing 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes a year of clean hydrogen and about 3,000 to 4,500 tonnes of carbon black.
Depending on the project results, Campbell says, the technology could ultimately be deployed to provide clean hydrogen at Suncor’s refineries and renewable liquids facilities. If implemented at three commercial plants, the project could achieve a cumulative GHG reduction in seven years of 13,770 kilotonnes, making an important contribution to net zero goals .
Beyond Suncor, the technology could potentially open up other market possibilities. These include the production of clean hydrogen for blending in residential gas supply or as a fuel alternative for long haul trucking. In addition, the carbon black could be used as a valuable feedstock in the manufacturing of paint, plastics and rubber goods.
“This technology could demonstrate that hydrogen can be produced at lower cost and with fewer GHGs than other alternatives. This could lead to broader adoption of hydrogen across a variety of markets and uses,” Campbell says.
With these kinds of prospects, Campbell and Laroche see the project as a powerful example of collaboration.
“It’s a great example of bringing companies from across Canada to work together to develop solutions that reduce emissions from the energy sector and contribute to net zero goals,” Campbell says.
Laroche adds: “It’s a beautiful collaboration. We are a small technology company and Suncor is a major industry player. Together we’re advancing a world-class technology solution.”