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Water Today Title February 21, 2024
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Hydrogen’s Cost-Effective Potential To Reduce Emissions

Edmonton start-up Aurora Hydrogen produces hydrogen and solid carbon with no direct CO2 emissions by using microwave energy to heat methane in the absence of oxygen & water


“Aurora plants run on natural gas and electricity alone. We produce low carbon hydrogen by heating natural gas directly with efficient microwave energy—using 80% less electricity than electrolysis.”-- aurorahydrogen.com


Interview with Feyisara Adekunle, Engagement Lead, Aurora Hydrogen


WT: The global hydrogen market is estimated to be worth $140 B per year and is expected to grow ten times by 2050. However, at present even though hydrogen is produced with at least 80% lower emissions than fossil fuel, low-carbon hydrogen costs up to three times more than alternative technologies.

Please give us an overview of Aurora Hydrogen’s novel technology briefly addressing the benefits of the system.

Adekunle: Aurora Hydrogen is developing a clean, low-cost, and distributed hydrogen production technology that utilizes efficient microwave energy to produce hydrogen and solid carbon from natural gas without consuming water or generating any CO2 emissions.

We believe Aurora’s proprietary technology will be able to produce hydrogen at a lower cost than any other method including existing methane pyrolysis technology.

Our technology is both modular and scalable.
 
It will enable new economic applications for hydrogen including natural gas blending vehicle refueling and long-term energy storage.

Because of the extreme electricity efficiency of Aurora’s technology, we believe that we can produce hydrogen with a lower greenhouse gas impact than green hydrogen in most regions around the world.

Production units can scale from small fueling stations to the largest industrial applications and can be installed anywhere there is access to electricity and natural gas.

Hydrogen production using Aurora’s technology has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by over 900 million Tonnes per year while avoiding billions of Tonnes of future CO2 production.

WT: An interesting collaboration between science and commercial innovation was the basis of founding Aurora. Please tell us about the journey that brought the founding team together.

Adekunle: Based in Edmonton Alberta, Aurora Hydrogen was founded in 2022 by Dr. Andrew Gillis (CEO); Dr. Erin Bobicki (CTO); and Dr. Murray Thomson (CSO).

Dr. Murray Thomson, a professor at the University of Toronto and Aurora’s Chief Science officer, is a leading combustion expert and has been working with methane pyrolysis for several decades. Knowing microwaves are a very efficient heating method, Dr. Thomson wondered whether it was possible to use them to produce hydrogen with less energy and no CO2 emissions.

To answer his question he contacted Dr. Erin Bobicki, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. Dr. Bobicki is a leading expert on the application of microwave energy to industrial processes.

Combining Dr. Thomson’s and Dr. Bobicki’s unique domain expertise led to the development of a novel very efficient emission free hydrogen production technology.

Dr. Andrew Gillis joined the team with over a decade of experience in the development and commercialization of industrial hardware. He had previously worked with Dr. Bobicki on the successful development and commercialization of microwave technology for the mining industry.
 
WT: Why is hydrogen a hot topic in the race to net zero?

Adekunle: As the global search for sustainable solutions continues, hydrogen emerges as a key player in the transition to a greener future. Hydrogen’s versatility offers a solution for decarbonizing industries like transportation and manufacturing. Hydrogen’s potential as an energy carrier aligns with the global efforts to achieve net zero. Aurora Hydrogen is developing innovative methodologies by blending cutting-edge technology with cost-effective solutions. The outcome will be paradigm shifting in the landscape of hydrogen production and climate change.

WT: What are the advantages of being based in Alberta?

Adekunle: Alberta’s competitive tax environment, government support for innovation, and well-developed infrastructure are just a few advantages.

The abundance of natural resources, especially in the energy sector with a focus on renewable energy and technology, presents limitless opportunities for start-up ventures. In addition, being involved in the energy sector is advantageous given the significant shift of capital from traditional energy assets to new energy pathways.

WT: How does the technology work?

Adekunle: Aurora’s technology converts gas into hydrogen by connecting to existing natural gas infrastructure. Industrial scale microwave technology heats the natural gas without a catalyst.

In a commercially proven fluidized bed reactor, microwave heat breaks the molecular bonds between the carbon and hydrogen (methane pyrolysis) without any CO2 emissions. The process produces hydrogen fuel at the point of use.

WT: What is ‘carbon black’ and how does the carbon produced by Aurora differ?

Adekunle: Carbon black is a material produced by the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons which is the byproduct of most methane pyrolysis methods. In contrast to these other hydrogen production processes, Aurora Hydrogen’s process produces a relatively large and unique pure carbon particle (size + 05mm) rather than carbon black.

The reactor is initially seeded with carbon particles, and the carbon produced
 
from methane pyrolysis grows on the existing carbon particles.

The carbon particles grow until they are sufficiently large (currently we are working at several hundred microns) at which point they are removed from the reactor.

The size of carbon particles removed from the reactor is an operating variable that we can adjust as needed.

The characteristics of the pure carbon product make it well-suited for applications in steelmaking, graphene production, concrete, and other construction aggregate applications.

WT: In a recent study1 by Cleantech Group, Aurora is highlighted as “bringing innovation to the twin challenges of reducing costs and raising efficiencies”. Please comment.

Adekunle: The primary focus for our technology is to attain the world-leading technology when looked at by both cost reduction for industry as well as efficiencies gained through the distributed deployment methods for our technology. The Aurora process converts natural gas to hydrogen and solid carbon with no direct CO2 emissions in an efficient (electrical energy input of 35MJ/kg-H2) and cost effective ($0.67-1.25/kg-H2) way using microwave energy.

WT: Aurora has also been identified as being among Alberta’s early wave of investors. What does this mean for you?

Adekunle: A significant driving force behind investments in Aurora Hydrogen and the Alberta ecosystem is the accessibility of non-dilutive funding to supplement private investments. Thanks to the non-dilutive grant funding received, we are able to successfully double our equity raise.

This signifies abundant opportunities within the capital market and investment landscape for individuals in search of promising avenues in the province. Companies take satisfaction participating as co-investors in projects that play a role in advancing Alberta’s cleaner and more sustainable future.

WT: What stage is Aurora Hydrogen currently at in the scale-up process? What can you tell us about the demonstration facility?

Adekunle: Aurora Hydrogen is in the process of transitioning from a laboratory-based bench scale reactor to a 200 kg per day demonstration facility. The significant increase in size aims to ensure that the fluidized bed is large enough to provide reliable data for scaling purposes.

Key distinctions between the bench scale and the demonstration facility include variations in frequency, power, size, and reactor configuration.

Some features to expect in the pilot plant include an industrial-sized microwave generator, a continuous process where carbon particles are consistently removed, and remarkable low energy consumption as demonstrated in the bench-scale phase.

WT: Moving forward...what’s next?

Adekunle: The next stage for Aurora is to transition from the demonstration scale to the 2 Tonne per day commercial facility.

Our team takes pride in diversity and inclusion. We believe that fostering an inclusive environment enhances creativity, innovation, and reflects on the varied perspectives that only make us stronger.

As we continue our journey to produce the world’s lowest –cost clean hydrogen, we encourage individuals from all walks of life to join our team. Together we build an organization that thrives on diversity, collaboration, and excellence.

We invite anyone interested in joining us to change the future of hydrogen production to please reach out.

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