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Hydrogen Fuels

ERCO Worldwide, which operates a chemical plant on the north end of Saskatoon, is converting a waste product into an energy source-and improving its bottom line.

ERCO has taken hydrogen-a byproduct of its manufacturing process which it used to vent into the atmosphere-and turned it into a clean burning fuel for process operations and space heating. The hydrogen, which can be substituted directly for natural gas in the plant's boiler, has replaced about one-third of the natural gas consumed at the energy intensive facility. This not only saves non-renewable energy resources but also reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 30 percent.

Adapting the facility to recycle hydrogen cost the company about $1.3 million. That investment was recouped in the first year of operation through energy savings. From now on, hydrogen substitution will save the company $1 million plus a year, even more if natural gas prices rise.

The main feed source for the plants chemical products is ordinary salt obtained from a deposit about 1 km below the plant. Water is pumped into the deposit to dissolve the salt and returned to the surface as brine. Hydrogen gas is produced as a byproduct when the salt brine is electrolyzed in the process of making sodium chlorate.

Hydrogen has been touted as the fuel of the future, since it burns clean and does not produce carbon dioxide. But despite the fact that hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it is not easy to obtain or store it in a pure form. It can take more energy to separate it from parent materials, such as water, than the resulting hydrogen gas produces.

ERCO's innovations are one example of the economic benefits of improved environmental performance, helping to put to rest the myth that we have to choose between prosperity and a green economy.