Get the carbon out of natural gas

Turning natural gas into hydrogen might sound like the alchemists dream of turning lead into gold but the technology has been around for decades.

image: FuelCellsWorks

It’s long been the dream of our fossil-fuel hungry society that we can continue to burn fuel without the consequences of climate change. We’re totally hooked on fossil fuels and the future of reliance on renewable energy sources is decades away.

One proposed solution is to extract CO2 out of the air by sequestration: capture and store CO2. But that technology is unproven and even if it worked, would require billions of dollars to build. 

It would help a lot if we could, at least, remove the carbon from the natural gas used to heat our homes, cook our meals, and heat water. Fifty per cent of Canada’s household energy needs come from natural gas, with electricity at 45 per cent in second place, and heating oil at 4 per cent.

As far as gas goes, hydrogen is the fuel of the future. When burned, it produces nothing but water.

The feds are big on hydrogen. Last year, the federal government released its Hydrogen Strategy for Canada. It’s an ambitious plan to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and make Canada a global leader in hydrogen technologies.

There are a number of ways of producing hydrogen including the electrolysis of water using green sources of electricity. There are even pockets of hydrogen beneath the ground that could be mined.

And since a massive system of natural gas pipelines already exists, the hydrogen could be sent through those pipelines.

However, sending hydrogen through natural gas pipelines is a bad idea, says professor Michael E. Webber of the University of Texas at Austin:

“Moving and storing gaseous hydrogen is also a challenge. Because of hydrogen’s low density, it takes a lot of energy to move it through a pipe compared with denser gases such as methane or liquids such as petroleum. After several hundred kilometers the inefficiency makes moving hydrogen more expensive than the value of the energy it carries (Scientific American, April, 2021).”

A better solution would be to convert natural gas to hydrogen at the end of the pipeline -at home. The process is called pyrolysis. It breaks down in natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon. The method is efficient and eliminates CO2 emissions. It’s been known for decades. Pyrolysis takes conventional natural gas and converts is to nearly zero carbon.

However, pyrolysis is not magic. It requires heat which would have to come from renewable electricity sources. On the plus side, the solid carbon produced is a valuable industrial product; more valuable than any other product we place at our curbsides. It could be collected with other recyclables. Also, the gas jets in our appliances would have to be replaced to burn hydrogen.

The installation of home pyrolysis generators would be expensive but compared to the billions of dollars being put into carbon sequestration, not prohibitive. The sale of the valuable solid carbon collected would partially offset costs.

Home-based natural gas converters would allow us to have our fossil fuels and burn them too. And feel good about doing so.