Josephine Hill, University of Calgary
There may come a day when we live in a world without oil, but we’re not there yet. If Canada hopes to lower its carbon emissions while continuing to exploit its wealth of fossil fuel reserves, then the key lies in increased efficiency. Dr. Josephine Hill, Canada Research Chair in Hydrogen and Catalysis at University of Calgary, is leading a team that is trying to accomplish just that.
“You can think of cooking something – chop an onion and half the onion falls off the chopping board and never makes it into the final meal. It’s the same thing if you’re trying to produce a fuel; if you’re not using all the feedstock, then it’s a waste.” Dr. Hill’s research focuses on catalysts, substances that affect the rate at which a chemical reaction takes place. A catalyst that can speed up a reaction – for example converting fuel into useful energy – can make the process more efficient. “I’ve always been fascinated with catalysts and how they work,” says Dr. Hill, “you can have trace amounts of metal and make reactions go really quickly.” Dr. Hill explains catalysts in terms of going shopping at a supermarket: if you go back and forth through all the aisles looking for something, it’s a waste of energy. It’s much more efficient to go directly where you want, without any unnecessary twists and turns, and a catalyst can help you get there.
One of the research projects Dr. Hill is working on with her research team at University of Calgary involves bitumen – the thick and dense form of oil that’s mined in Canada’s oil sands. “What we do is take bitumen that comes out of the ground and look for catalysts to convert it into something usable.” This can involve the waste products of the oil refining process. Dr. Hill explains, “to go from bitumen to a synthetic crude you need to add hydrogen and reject carbon. The carbon can be rejected in a couple of different ways, what you produce is something called petroleum coke – we have millions of tonnes in Alberta. Can we do something with that material?” This petroleum coke is essentially a waste material, but it is not without its uses. One idea Dr. Hill’s team is working on is to turn the coke into activated carbon, similar to what you’d find in a water filter. This activated carbon could be used to clean up tailings ponds, the temporary waste dumps created as a byproduct of oil sands operations. “If we can make a cheaper catalyst, it may not be as active as platinum,” says Dr. Hill, referring to the dense metal that’s a commonly used but expensive catalyst, “but if it’s more efficient then it’s a better choice.”
Catalysts are also used in a process called gasification, whereby a feedstock is converted into a gaseous fuel. “One of our gasification projects is with UBC and UofT. There is so much pine beetle wood, we looked at whether we could combine biomass with non-biomass sources – taking wood and coal or petroleum coke – and could we make that more effective by using natural catalysts in the wood. Wood and biomass contain potassium, a very good catalyst for gasification.” This is another example of using what would otherwise be a waste product and making it useful, increasing the efficiency of the industrial process.
Dr. Hill’s team is also researching fuel cells, a device somewhat like a cross between an engine and a battery that converts the chemical energy from fuel into electricity. “The type of fuel cells that we look at are high temperature fuel cells, not necessarily for something like cars – there are many different types. We are looking at solid oxide fuel cells for stationary applications.” Fuel cells have been discussed for years, and it’s been over a decade since the media began touting the hydrogen economy, so what’s the hold up? “I think fuel cells are oversold,” comments Dr. Hill, “and the joke is that we’ve been 5 years away for the past 40 years. But they are coming – in fact, they’re already being used – the Walmart distribution centre in Balzac, Alberta has a fleet of forklifts that run on hydrogen fuel cells."
Compared to a combustion engine, a fuel cell has a different efficiency limit. Because of heat loss, no engine can operate at 100% efficiency. Dr. Hill explains, “when you put in 1 litre of gas, you only use a fraction depending on the car. We use some of it as waste heat, especially for heating, but of that 1 litre, less than 50% goes toward driving the engine and moving the car. With a fuel cell, you can do better than that. You can go up to 70 or 80 percent. We’re trying to develop solid oxide fuel cells so we can put hydrocarbons directly into them.”
All of this work involves fossil fuels in some way, but isn’t that something we supposed to be moving away from? Why not put our money into researching renewable energy technology, like solar PV? As Dr. Hill sees it, our lives are currently centered around fossil fuels, and until that changes, there will be a need to do more with less. “If people don’t like oil, they shouldn’t use it,” says Dr. Hill, “the companies are there because people consume the product. If nobody wanted it, then it wouldn’t be there. CO2 emissions are small from the oil sands relative to where it’s being consumed in the cars and the buildings.” Oil and gas companies can save money by improving their efficiencies, and decrease their environmental impact at the same time. “There is a lot of innovation going on in the oil companies,” says Dr. Hill, “they want to be as efficient as possible. It’s in their best interest to improve their processes.”
In the immediate future, with our economy based so heavily on fossil fuels, increasing efficiency is the best way to save money and lower emissions. The work being done by Dr. Hill and her team at University of Calgary is an important part of that low-carbon puzzle.