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Atlantic Hydrogen and UNB Partner to Improve Fuel

Conducting a tour through Atlantic Hydrogen Inc.’s state-of-the-art facility in Fredericton, CEO David Wagner returns repeatedly to a central theme in his discuss of the company’s history and prospects: none of what the company has achieved would have been possible without the help of the University of New Brunswick.

What the company has accomplished is pretty darn impressive. Its achievements will no doubt gain dramatically in the autumn of 2013 when AHI and partner Emera Inc. open their facility at the Bayside electrical generating station near Saint John that will produce hydrogen-enriched natural gas, or HENG.

“We are just beginning the construction phase of our first industrial-size plant,” said Wagner, as he strode to the test facility behind the company’s plant. “We can demonstrate everything we do right here, and now the idea is to move to a larger facility.”

The test facility – which looks like an assembly of pipes and electric components -- is an industrial-sized demonstration unit for the company’s flagship CarbonSaver technology, which uses plasma technology to extract hydrogen and filter out carbon from natural gas. It then feeds the hydrogen back into the natural gas to enrich it and make it cleaner and more efficient.

Serial entrepreneur Bill Stanley started Atlantic Hydrogen in 2002 with a simple concept: if you use plasma to remove the hydrogen from natural gas (which is one part carbon, four parts hydrogen), you can filter out the carbon particles, and can feed the hydrogen back into the natural gas to improve it as a fuel.  Stanley worked with McGill University scientists to prove the concept then shifted the project to University of New Brunswick with funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency’s Atlantic Innovation Fund. 

UNB’s Office of Research Services worked with the shareholders on setting up the company, doing contract research work and providing it with lab and corporate space during what amounted to its incubation stage. That arrangement lasted until the company moved to its current facilities in 2007.
The research collaboration is continuing today.

“Most university research contracts last for two or three years at most,” said David Foord – who worked in the Office of Research Services in those days and now is an AHI executive. “This one’s been running practically since the company started.”

While the scientists knew the process worked, the company has optimized the efficiency of the procedure to ensure it would be economical at an industrial scale. Over the years, AHI has reduced the amount of electricity used in the process by 98 percent. It has also established that HENG produced with CarbonSaver is far superior to normal natural gas, producing 20 to 40 percent less nitrogen oxides with an efficiency of seven to 11 percent.

Such gains did not come easily. The company has raised more than $32 million in funding, including a $5 million strategic investment from Emera, but just as important, it collaborated with the academic community for the human resources and facilities needed to advance the industrial process.

“Of the 25 people we have working here, I’d say that half of them are UNB graduates,” said Wagner, adding that the university’s faculty were always on hand to discuss scientific and technical problems with the AHI staff.  “Having the ability to go to UNB and draw on the knowledge of others is a resource that cannot be over-emphasized.”

The university also assisted with the use of its facilities, such as advanced reactors that were crucial before AHI had its own.

Soon, AHI will be installing three reactors at the Bayside facility, and that will improve the efficiency and environmental performance of the 275-magawatt gas-powered generator. The company has purchased all the components and (as of May) expects to begin the three-month construction process in the early summer. It anticipated to cut the ribbon at the facility in September 2013, and would do so with a tip of its hat to the university in Fredericton.

“We wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the support of UNB,” Wagner said in concluding the interview.