Canadian scientists may have come up with a solution to the perils of the Tar Sands - turn that hazmat sludge, a.k.a. bitumen, into hydrogen, on site.
Hydrogen, even if a bit volatile, is a terrific transport fuel. It's full of energy and, when burned, produces only heat and water (in theory) instead of climate-killing CO2.
Often called the fuel of the future, the gas can be used to generate electricity and power vehicles. It produces water — not carbon — when burned.
Now, engineers in Alberta believe they could have an answer — a method capable of extracting hydrogen from underground resources like oilsands deposits while leaving the carbon emissions it produces below the surface.
"That's been an industrial technology for over 80 [years]," said Grant Strem, CEO of Proton Technologies, the private company commercializing the new process for creating hydrogen.
"What we're doing is very similar, but the big difference is, we're using the ground as a reaction vessel, so our capital cost is a lot lower, and instead of buying natural gas to fuel it, we use the unswept oil in the reservoir as our fuel."What's just as great as transforming the Tar Pits into a hydrogen gas resource is what doesn't have to come out of the ground - the tar and its toxic contents such as pet coke, heavy metals, acids and other carcinogens.
Through lab work and small-scale field testing, the researchers say they found injecting oxygen into the fields raises the temperature and creates a reaction that frees the hydrogen.
"You can envision that the reservoir is simply a hot, bubbling mix of oil, which some fraction of it is now combusting," said professor Ian Gates, from his lab at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering.
"And as it is doing so, it simply keeps producing more and more hydrogen as a consequence of its reactions."