An HCNG transit bus stops at a hydrogen fuelling station in the Vancouver area.
B.C. projects benefit environment, bottom line
Last Updated March 27, 2007
By Jerry Langton
Hydrogen-powered shuttle buses in Vancouver. The buses are basically stock vehicles, modified slightly to run on compressed hydrogen gas instead of gasoline.
Hydrogen may be lighter than air, but for two chemical plants in North Vancouver, it caused a weighty problem — until they figured out a solution that benefited both the bottom line and the environment.
Erco Worldwide's sodium chlorate plant and Canexis' clor-alkali facility across the road both produce excess hydrogen as part of their operations. Both companies use electrolysis on salt water to extract valuable chemicals such as chlorine, and hydrogen is a natural byproduct of the process.
Hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas and, because it is so incredibly light, if it is released it causes no environmental problems under normal circumstances as it races to the stratosphere. But it is extremely flammable, and both companies went to great lengths and expense to ensure that their excess hydrogen was disposed of safely and appropriately. And, since their operations together produce more than 1,000 kilograms of the lightest substance in the universe every hour, it wasn’t a small problem.
But what some people throw away, others treasure.
"We saw these companies venting hydrogen — it was just going to waste," said Hamid Tamehi, senior engineer and project manager at Sacré-Davey Engineering. "We realized that we wanted to capture it, purify it and use it for energy."
It sounds logical, but it wasn't a simple or inexpensive task.
Although everyone talks about hydrogen as an energy source, few people have actually done anything about it. Sacré-Davey, a North Vancouver engineering and consulting firm, managed to attract some high-rolling partners to the idea, which it named the Integrated Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project (IWHUP). After setting a budget of $18.3 million, Sacré-Davey raised 25 per cent of the funding from a consortium of 12 corporate partners — including Ford Canada — and the rest from the federal government.
Since the fall of 2007, IWHUP has been harvesting the waste hydrogen, taking out what Tamehi calls the "chlorine, water vapor and other nasties," and trucking it to two fuelling stations — one in North Vancouver and the other in Port Coquitlam, a nearby suburb.
The station in North Vancouver fuels the project's nine pickup trucks and two small shuttle buses. Used by various partners, the pickups and buses are basically stock vehicles, modified slightly to run on compressed hydrogen gas instead of gasoline.
"It doesn’t have a fuel cell, it's a good old-fashioned V8 with a few modifications to bring it to the same level of performance as a conventional gasoline engine," says Sean Allen, project engineer at Powertech Labs. "But essentially, it has zero emissions at the tailpipe — it's just steam. They're a much more cost-effective solution than fuel-cell vehicles, and they act as a stepping-stone technology to help introduce the infrastructure necessary for a hydrogen economy."
"They aren't zero-emission vehicles like fuel-cell vehicles are," added Tamehi. "But they are very, very close."
Since the fall of 2007, the Integrated Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project (IWHUP) in B.C. has been harvesting waste hydrogen.
Fuel cells were deemed too expensive for the IWHUP project, and the existing internal-combustion technology was already available through Ford. The partnership has given Ford a testing ground for its alternative fuel systems.
"Ford supplied the trucks and they asked us to use them as much as we can," he said. "They wanted to know how their technology would work in real-world circumstances."
So far, so good, according to the project's backers. Other than routine maintenance, the only problems with the engines have been fuel injectors that have to be replaced more frequently than those on more conventional vehicles.
Four full-sized buses that run on a mixture of compressed hydrogen and natural gas also use the Port Coquitlam station. Operated by TransLink, the greater Vancouver transportation authority, the buses behave very much like those powered by natural gas alone, but with a 50-per-cent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.
"We've converted four compressed natural gas buses to run on a hydrogen mix, and the biggest difference is cleaner emissions — there's much less nitrogen oxide and greenhouse gases," said Jack Lees, maintenance manager for Translink’s Port Coquitlam station. "After the conversion, there was virtually no performance difference whatsoever, the power and torque remained the same."
The vehicles use a small fraction of the hydrogen IWHUP produces. So the engineers at Sacré-Davey also designed a project that would demonstrate how hydrogen power could work in non-transport scenarios — they built a car wash. But unlike conventional car washes, the North Vancouver Easywash facility is powered and heated by a hydrogen fuel cell.
"We wanted to use one from Ballard, our neighbours," said Tamehi. "But they didn’t have anything big enough."
Instead, they went to Cambridge, Mass.-based Nuvera, which supplied a 150 kW fuel cell, which proved more than up to the task.
"The fuel cell not only powers the car wash, but also heats the water," said Geoff Baker, co-founder of Easywash. "We don't use all the power that's being produced, so we actually turn the switch and actually send power to the B.C. Hydro power grid."
According to Tamehi, Easywash is now the biggest energy re-supplier to the grid.
And there's plenty more waste hydrogen to be had. While IWHUP current powers 15 vehicles, Tamehi estimates that the amount of hydrogen gleaned from the Erco and Canexis plants could power 20,000 vehicles and, if all the similar plants in Canada were tapped, there would be enough to run 250,000 vehicles.
Trucks like these, rather than traditional fuel tankers, are used to deliver hydrogen to fuelling stations.
"It's not enough to satisfy the needs of all the cars in Canada, but it's a start," he said.
What Tamehi calls "our mini-hydrogen economy" has not gone unnoticed.
"We get visitors from industry, academia and government — Toyota was here the other day," he said. "Delegates come from Japan, Thailand, Korea, the U.K. — lots from the U.S."
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