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Alternative Fuel Sources: How Canadian Cleantech Companies Play A Role Internationally

According to Our World In Data, 2016 saw 49.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. Transport contributed to 16.2% of these emissions and the debate around burning fossil fuels to power the vehicles, planes, and ships that we all rely on to transport both people and goods has been ongoing.

Transport made up 16.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Alternative fuel sources like hydrogen and eMethanol work to reduce these emissions as the world moves towards net-zero.

As innovations in cleantech continue to emerge, an interesting space is that of alternative fuel sources. If we can find better, more sustainable sources of fuel to support these industries, we can reduce global reliance on fossil fuels and encourage a more rapid transition to net-zero emissions.

Hydrogen as an alternative fuel source

Hydrogen is considered to be an alternative fuel source. The chemical reaction that occurs when hydrogen gas is burned with oxygen produces water and releases energy, creating zero carbon emissions. 

There are a few ways to produce hydrogen. Pure hydrogen does not occur in large quantities on Earth and it therefore requires the input of primary energy to be produced on an industrial level. Depending on the process used, the type of hydrogen produced is classified by colour.

Methods of production

There are two main methods of producing hydrogen fuel: through methane or electrolysis of water. Currently, around 95% of hydrogen production is made by using fossil fuels in a process known as steam reforming or steam methane reforming (SMR). Natural gas is used as a feedstock and, through partial oxidation of methane and coal gasification, a reaction occurs that results in the production of hydrogen fuel. This process, however, still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and therefore contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

The second method of water electrolysis uses electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up water. Using either renewable or non-renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass, nuclear, or fossil fuels, it is a cleaner, but more expensive method of producing hydrogen fuel.

A photo of a cloudy mountain landscape with four wind turbines in the background and solar panels in the foreground.

Renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar cells can help produce hydrogen used in alternative fuels.

Hydrogen fuel types

There are three types of hydrogen fuel production, colour-coded to signify the method and impact of each. “Grey hydrogen” refers to hydrogen fuel that’s produced as a by-product of industrial processes. “Blue hydrogen” uses a production process in which carbon dioxide is also produced and then captured using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. “Green hydrogen” is produced using only renewable sources.

The potential of alternative fuels and the hydrogen economy

As global priorities begin to shift towards sustainability at a faster pace than ever before, finding ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption or, ideally, replace it altogether with renewable energy sources will become increasingly important. Innovations that address production of alternative fuels, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are becoming more important as well. 

Canada is already at the forefront of many of the technologies needed for alternative energy sources. With abundant wind, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources of power that can be used in the second method of hydrogen fuel production, electrolysis, an emerging market is forming. British Columbia-based companies like Ballard Power and Loop Energy have already established themselves as industry leaders, and smaller companies like Hydrogen In Motion are on their way to contributing innovations to the emerging hydrogen economy as well. Carbon capture and storage companies like Carbon Engineering also call BC home.

Regulatory changes are accelerating innovation in clean energy too. In BC, for example, the Clean BC plan mandates that emissions be reduced by 80% by 2050. Improving operations and creating new opportunities across various industries are a high priority. Transport companies like BC Ferries will play a significant role in achieving those reductions in the province as the call to adopt new cleantech solutions gets louder and the opportunities for alternative fuel sources like hydrogen grow.

Using similar technologies differently

Using CCS technologies and hydrogen production principles, emerging cleantech companies like Sweden’s Liquid Wind are developing facilities to produce a liquid carbon neutral fuel known as electro-Methanol or eMethanol. This “power-to-liquid” process captures carbon dioxide emissions and combines them with hydrogen produced from renewable power sources and water. Resulting in eMethanol, the liquid fuel provides a valuable energy source for the transport sector that is easy to store, transport, and use in existing infrastructures and operations, while not contributing to new emissions of greenhouse gases.

Similar to the colour-coding in hydrogen production, “black methanol” refers to methanol derived from fossil fuel sources which is already used with shipping. “Green methanol” is derived from renewable sources. Liquid Wind is currently developing their first fuel production facility in Sweden and they have plans for many more to meet the growing need for carbon neutral fuel. Having identified Canada as an ideal location to develop further facilities, they are already in discussions with potential partners.

Focusing on the shipping and road transport industries in particular, Liquid Wind’s aim is to provide large volumes of carbon neutral fuel to significantly reduce carbon emissions. The fuel’s compatibility with existing processes and infrastructures, as well as its suitability for shipping in particular, make the fuel an interesting alternative with the potential for wide-scale adoption. The company is already in detailed discussions with a large shipping company who are interested in buying the fuel. 

A photo of a ship full of containers as part of the global shipping industry.

Shipping and heavy road transport can use alternative fuels like hydrogen and eMethanol to transition to carbon-neutral fuels for their operations.

Liquid Wind sees Canada as an innovative and pioneering force within cleantech. CEO of the company, Claes Fredriksson, lived in both Toronto and Vancouver before returning back to Sweden in 2013. He founded Liquid Wind in 2017, applying his knowledge and experience from working in the cleantech sector to establish the business model, supply chains and Consortium partners supporting the company. 

Canada has ideal conditions to produce cost-effective eFuel. As well as access to low-cost renewable electricity, Canada has strong industry in both hydrogen and carbon capture and Liquid Wind provides a great compliment to both of these industries.” -Claes Fredriksson, CEO of Liquid Wind

The company is currently raising $1.5M to accelerate the development of its first eMethanol production facility.

Alternative fuels as an international opportunity

With a number of important players in the hydrogen economy already established in Canada, and particularly British Columbia, the need for international collaboration at both the industry and regulatory levels is obvious. Large, medium-sized, and small companies can contribute their innovations to facilitate a faster transition away from fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from critical sectors like transport and shipping.

By making hydrogen, eMethanol, and other alternative sources of fuel a priority, industries can adapt their processes and operations to incorporate cleaner technologies in their operations as the transition to net-zero becomes increasingly critical.