A Canadian start-up plans to produce clean hydrogen from underground oil, gas and coal-bed fires, with the H2 being up to ten times cheaper per kilogram than the least expensive, highly polluting methods available today.

Real-world testing has now begun on Proton Technologies’ “Hygenic Earth Energy” (HEE) concept, and if all goes to plan, the technology could revolutionise the global energy industry, potentially killing off the nascent renewables-based green hydrogen industry and providing a method of harnessing huge amounts of “low-cost, high profit, zero emissions” energy from existing oil fields without any carbon emissions.

The concept is remarkably simple, even if it sounds dangerously insane.

Air or oxygen is pumped into the underground oil or gas reservoir, or coal bed, and ignited to set fire to the hydrocarbons. When the fire reaches temperatures above 500°C, injected steam or existing water vapour reacts with the hydrocarbons to produce syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Adding extra water to the syngas creates a reaction that produces CO2 and more hydrogen. But the carbon dioxide and other impurities would remain underground as patented palladium-alloy membranes allow only the hydrogen to diffuse through the metal lattice.

The company says it will eventually produce this clean hydrogen for $0.10-0.50 per kilogram. This would be a massive cost reduction for the versatile clean-burning fuel.

The cheapest hydrogen produced today — from steam methane reforming and coal gasification, which release nine to 12 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere for every tonne of H2 produced — costs $1-1.80/kg, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Green hydrogen — produced by powering electrolysers that split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen with renewable energy — costs $2.50-6.80 today, according to BloombergNEF. The analyst also says that economies of scale could bring down the cost of green H2 to as low as $1.40/kg by 2030 and $0.80/kg by 2050.

But if Proton can prove its technology, not only could it make green hydrogen uneconomic for decades to come, but the speed of production would probably far outpace the growth of renewable H2.

The low cost of Proton’s hydrogen is partly due to the economies of scale — vast quantities of the gas could be extracted cheaply from each oil or gas reservoir or coal bed, and partly because it can take advantage of hydrocarbons that are otherwise uneconomic to extract — such as depleted or abandoned oil & gas reservoirs — which would therefore be cheap to buy.

“In broad terms, about 70% of oil remains in the ground after production, because it is inaccessible or uneconomic to recover. In natural gas reserves about 20% is left behind,” the company points out. “For many abandoned or declining reservoirs, HEE becomes a ‘phoenix’ solution, reviving local industry and producing unexpected value from sunk costs.

“The transition to HEE can be rapid since so much infrastructure is in place, and so many reservoirs are surveyed and accessible.”

Proton also points out that heavy crude oil such as tar sands — which is expensive to extract and process, less calorific than light crude and produces more CO2 — can be ideal for the HEE process.

“Globally, the resource base for heavy oil is several times larger than that of conventional oil. Thus, if HEE can yield clean energy — with virtually zero greenhouse-gas emissions — from heavy oil reserves, the impact is significant on both the world economy and environment,” the company states. “The ideal target for HEE in heavy oil reservoirs would be reservoirs with greater than 40% water saturation. At present, these reservoirs are considered inaccessible. But for HEE, the high water saturation becomes an advantage.”

The economics and the environmental implications [will] make people look very hard at whether they want to continue conventional oil production

This month, Proton began real-world testing at the Superb oil field in Saskatchewan, a layer of sand 700 metres below the surface that contains 200 million barrels of heavy crude. For this initial study, Proton will test their palladium membranes at the surface and release the CO2 into the atmosphere, while at the next larger field test, the membranes would be used underground, as required to keep the CO2 below the surface.

Nevertheless, Proton hopes to produce commercial amounts of hydrogen from the Superb field in the coming months.

Proton chief executive Grant Strem claims that the Calgary-based company’s process could produce enough hydrogen from just the heavy-oil fields in the Canadian province of Alberta to “supply Canada's entire electricity requirements for 330 years”.

“The economics and the environmental implications [will] make people look very hard at whether they want to continue conventional oil production,” he told a geochemical conference last year.

But just how feasible is Proton’s plan?

Jennifer Wilcox, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts-based Worcester Polytechnic Institute, told Science magazine that the palladium membranes can be “fragile and finicky” even when used at the surface, adding: “When doing everything underground, it’s difficult to have control.”

And Geoffrey Maitland, a chemical engineer at Imperial College London, added: “This chemistry is well-proven at the surface. The challenge is controlling these processes several kilometres underground.”

The reason why the Proton technology could be so important is that clean hydrogen (produced without greenhouse-gas emissions) can play a vital role in decarbonizing the world’s energy system.

Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel that can generate electricity (using fuel cells or modified gas turbines); power vehicles — notably long-distance lorries, trains and ships; produce sufficient heat to be an eventual replacement for natural gas ­— and even use existing gas networks; provide the high-temperature heat required for industrial processes such as cement and steel production; and also be used as the base ingredient for carbon-neutral synthetic aviation fuel.

Today, about 70 million tonnes of hydrogen is produced annually — with 95-99% of it produced from methane and coal. More than half of this hydrogen is used in oil refining, with about 42% used as a base ingredient for ammonia fertiliser production, according to the IEA.