On this page, we address the following topics related to hydrogen as an energy source in Manitoba:
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Hydrogen can be burned for heat energy or it can produce electricity directly within fuel cells.
Most of the hydrogen in use today was derived from natural gas. Almost all of the hydrogen on Earth is only found in combination with other elements such as oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. To use hydrogen, it must be separated from these other elements.
Whether hydrogen is burned for heat or is used in fuel cells, the only material by-product is water. Although water vapour is a greenhouse gas, it is very short-lived in the atmosphere and is kept in balance by the hydrologic cycle (i.e. excess water vapour falls from the sky as precipitation).
There are four key problems with using hydrogen as an energy source:
- It takes energy to produce hydrogen
- Hydrogen has a very low energy density
- It is difficult to store and handle
- It is difficult and expensive to transport
Energy to produce
Hydrogen can be made from water by passing an electric current through the water. This process is called electrolysis (1). Only about 4% of the world’s hydrogen is produced by electrolysis (2).
Most hydrogen in the world is made by applying heat to natural gas in a process known as “reforming” hydrogen. Making hydrogen from natural gas is 72% efficient (3), which means you lose 28% of the energy contained in the natural gas to make hydrogen. It also takes energy to extract and deliver the natural gas to the hydrogen plant.
Low energy density
Hydrogen has the lowest energy density of any fuel (4). At room temperature and pressure, hydrogen takes up 3,000 times the volume of gasoline containing an equivalent amount of energy. To be useable, hydrogen needs to be compressed or liquefied and more energy is lost:
- Compressing hydrogen to 10,000 psi is a multi-stage process that loses 15% of the energy contained in the hydrogen (5).
- Liquefying hydrogen allows more hydrogen energy to fit into a smaller container, but a further 30-40% of the hydrogen’s energy is lost in the process (6).
Storage & handling
Compressed hydrogen – At 10,000 psi pressure, compressed hydrogen is dangerous and must be stored in heavy tanks.
Liquid hydrogen – Handling liquid hydrogen requires extreme precautions because it’s so cold (– 253ºC) and volatile. Fueling is typically done mechanically with a robot arm (7). A vehicle using liquid hydrogen needs a cryogenic support system, which is heavy, and insulation adds more weight (8). Also, the cold temperatures cause plugged valves and other problems.
Canister trucks can carry enough fuel for 60 cars (9). These trucks weigh 40,000 kg but deliver only 400 kg of hydrogen. For a delivery distance of 150 miles, the delivery energy used is nearly 20% of the usable energy in the hydrogen delivered; at 300 miles it is 40%. The same size truck carrying gasoline delivers 10,000 gallons of fuel, enough to fill about 800 cars (10).
Pipelines – Natural gas pipelines can’t be used for hydrogen because they are composed of metal that would become brittle and leak, and is not the correct diameter to carry hydrogen efficiently. The average cost of a natural gas pipeline is about $1 million per mile. The US has about 200,000 miles of natural gas pipeline. A similar infrastructure to deliver hydrogen would cost about $200 trillion. The major operating cost of hydrogen pipelines is compressor power and maintenance (11). Compressors in the pipeline keep the gas moving, using hydrogen energy to push the gas forward. After 620 miles, 8% of the hydrogen will have been used to move it through the pipeline (12).
There have been some developments recently to assess the potential for hydrogen in Manitoba and to develop and build hydrogen-powered transit buses in Manitoba.
In April 2003, the Preliminary Hydrogen Opportunities Report was submitted to the Province of Manitoba by the Manitoba Hydrogen Steering Committee & Working Groups.
In March 2005, cold-weather testing of a Manitoban hydrogen-powered bus was completed. The bus used locally-produced hydrogen fuel and was serviced and supported by Red River College staff. It ran on compressed hydrogen gas produced with a mobile refueling system from Stuart Energy using Manitoba hydroelectricity and was refueled using a Winnipeg-based Kraus Global dispenser. The bus body was built by Manitoba’s New Flyer Industries and shipped to ISE Corporation in San Diego where the 10-cylinder Ford engine and hybrid-electric drive systems were installed. The engine was modified to burn pure hydrogen gas, powering an electric generator which powered motors at the drive wheels (13).
Manitoba hydrogen buses for the Vancouver Winter Olympics
In August 2007, Mantoba’s New Flyer Industries, in conjunction with Ballard Power Systems and ISE Corporation, was awarded a contract to manufacture and deliver 20 hydrogen fuel cell buses for BC Transit. These buses were to become a visible part of public transportation during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics (14).
Hydrogen could be important to Manitoba’s future because we have the ability to produce hydrogen using our hydroelectric resources. With the lowest electricity prices in North America, it might be possible for Manitoba to become the first jurisdiction on the continent to produce hydrogen economically via electrolysis.
Using hydrogen will require a variety of new technologies, products and services, such as fuel cell buses and hydrogen refueling stations. This could also mean economic opportunities for Manitoba companies and new high-technology jobs (15).