Breakthrough promises to turn oil fields into cleaner hydrogen fuel factories

20 Aug 2019

Image: © zhu difeng/

Scientists have discovered a way to extract hydrogen gas from oil, which can then be used in hydrogen cars.

While the rapid roll-out of electric vehicles remains one of the priorities of nations trying to drastically cut their carbon emissions, another proposed alternative gaining ground is hydrogen fuel. While not a new technology, the means of producing hydrogen on a large-scale for the transport industry has been a major stumbling block.

However, a team of researchers from the University of Calgary has revealed a potentially major breakthrough that could see industrial, economical extraction of hydrogen from oil reserves – such as oil sands (natural bitumen) and oil fields. It is also possible to bring this process to mainstream oil fields to switch their production to hydrogen gas, as well as abandoned oil fields.

Presenting its work at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Barcelona, the team identified vast oil reservoirs in several countries that would be ideal for this new production method. The science behind the breakthrough showed that injecting oxygen into the fields raises the temperature, breaking free the hydrogen that can then be separated from other gases via specialist filters.

‘Technology is effectively pollution and emission free’

In testing, the team said this technique can draw up huge quantities of hydrogen while leaving the carbon in the ground. In industrial production, it’s estimated that using existing infrastructure the method can produce hydrogen at between 10c and 50c per kilo. By comparison, current hydrogen production costs put it closer to $2 per kilo, with 5pc of the gas being used to power the oxygen production plant.

Taking its native Canada as an example, the team said this method could supply the nation’s electricity needs for 330 years.

“Our initial aim is to scale up the production from Canadian oil sands, but in fact we anticipate that most of the interest in this process will come from outside Canada, as the economics and the environmental implications make people look very hard at whether they want to continue conventional oil production,” said Grant Strem, CEO of Proton Technologies, which worked with the university.

“The only product of this process is hydrogen, meaning that it the technology is effectively pollution and emission free. All the other gases remain in the ground because they cannot go through the hydrogen filter and up to the surface.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic