Fuels of the future: Researching new ways to transport emerging fuels as energy sources

As Canada and the world tackle climate change, new lower-carbon sources of fuel are being explored to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These emerging fuels, including hydrogen and renewable natural gas, will play an important role in the future energy mix in conjunction with other renewable sources such as wind, solar and water, and non-renewable sources such as oil and natural gas.

Adding new fuels to the energy mix requires advancements in technology and infrastructure. In some cases, it may mean retrofitting existing facilities to allow them to handle different products. As the main mode of transportation for energy products, pipelines are a key piece of this puzzle. That’s why the transportation and storage of emerging fuels are key focus areas for the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI).

PRCI is a not-for-profit research organization whose members are the leading pipeline operators and technical solution providers from around the world. The members, including the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), pool their funding and direct key research areas to benefit the entire industry. One of those focus areas is emerging fuels—currently hydrogen and renewable natural gas. Hydrogen produces zero emissions when burned and is gaining a lot of attention around the world, including in Canada, as a low-carbon fuel of the future.

PRCI is examining ways to enhance existing pipeline systems to safely transport and store hydrogen across long distances.

“The current pipeline system can transport and store hydrogen – the question is how much,” said Cliff Johnson, President of PRCI. “If you go above a five per cent blend of hydrogen with natural gas in the current system, there are some question marks, and that’s what we’re doing research on – to figure out where that point is and how high you can go before you need to improve the system.”

Johnson says PRCI developed state-of-the-art reports around emerging fuels in 2020 that identified a number of important research opportunities that are needed in the next three years to ensure the safest transport and storage of hydrogen. He says many operators are conducting their own private research; PRCI is looking at ways to bring all the information together to tackle the issue on a global basis and develop an industry guidance for hydrogen transportation and storage in existing natural gas pipelines.

“The safe transportation and storage of emerging fuels is not really a competitive issue in the industry, it’s something we all need to work on together to enable the energy transition,” Johnson emphasized.

PRCI is also looking at renewable natural gas, which is made from organic waste produced by everyday activities. Johnson says it doesn’t require as much research, as the industry has a better understanding of the potential contaminants associated with blending renewable natural gas and how to mitigate them. He says, “it’s a more easily understood transition, whereas hydrogen will take some work”.

Johnson says it is important that the oil and gas industry – including pipeline operators – pave the way for emerging fuels.

As one of the top 10 hydrogen producers in the world, and with a rich and experienced energy sector, Canada is positioned to be a global leader in the development and export of clean renewable fuels. Canada’s transmission pipeline companies are working together, alongside the global industry through PRCI, to capitalize on this opportunity and enable the evolution to a cleaner, responsible energy future.

For examples of significant endeavours and research projects that CEPA is part of through PRCI, please visit our 2020 transmission pipeline industry performance report.

Special thanks to Cliff Johnson, President of Pipeline Research Council International for his contribution to this article.