For his Grade 4 science fair project, Simon Pickup wanted to “blow something up.” His father, a self-taught engineer, urged him to build a hydrogen electrolyzer instead. Born and raised in North Vancouver, Pickup eventually dropped out of high school to dive into creating hydrogen energy technology. In his early 20s, he returned to academia, studying economics through Harvard Extension School because he saw the hydrogen challenge as more financial than technical. “Historically it’s been kind of a chicken-and-egg problem,” says the 28-year-old co-founder of Hydra Energy Corp. at the startup’s headquarters in a drab industrial subdivision on Annacis Island near Vancouver. “The technology works, but the economics haven’t.”
Hydrogen, once touted as the miracle emission-free fuel of the future, has yet to meet its promise, hobbled by an energy-heavy production process and a lack of distribution infrastructure—not enough fuel pumps—plus lingering stigma around safety. (Think the Hindenburg disaster.) But it isn’t going away, and it may be enjoying a resurgence. In 2015, Toyota launched its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car in California, and last year Ballard Power Systems signed an agreement with China’s Zhongshan Broad-Ocean Motor Co. Ltd. to develop hydrogen fuel systems for buses and commercial vehicles. That deal could be worth US$168 million for the Burnaby-based company over the next half-decade.
While Ballard fuel cell technology uses hydrogen to generate electricity, Hydra focuses on making it a direct combustible replacement for gas- or diesel-burning engines. As a reminder of what could be, Pickup parks his own converted hydrogen-burning Chrysler 300 next to a prototype hydrogen fuel pump. Printed on the door of the office washroom is the phrase “Ideas can happen in the most unlikely places,” one of many aphorisms scattered throughout Hydra HQ to inspire its 11 employees and contractors.
For its first major commercial play, the company’s vertical integration model targets short-haul heavy-duty trucks that return to the yard each day, combining the economic scale benefits of high energy consumption with a centralized fuelling station that solves the distribution problem. Hydra plans to cover the capital costs of converting truck engines to dual hydrogen/diesel fuel units, recovering this outlay by signing customers to multiyear fuel purchase agreements. In exchange, clients will shrink their operating expenses by up to 20 per cent and greatly reduce emissions, explains Pickup.
As part of its scale-up, Hydra is deploying a recent $300,000 BC Innovation Council award that will help put $1 million in its R&D coffers. It’s also joined forces with UBC mechanical engineering professor Steven Rogak to test the engine performance and emissions of its flagship heavy-duty truck conversion, with a vehicle supplied by Ihaul Freight Ltd., also based on Annacis Island.
But bigger things lie ahead. As of March, Hydra was working with undisclosed partners in northern B.C. to build a $10-million-plus fuel plant that will recover hydrogen released as industrial emissions. Using waste hydrogen is a pillar of the company’s business model: Hydra estimates that generating enough hydrogen to replace more than 11 million litres of diesel annually could reduce greenhouse gas by 45,000 tonnes while only yielding a few hundred tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. “By 2018, we hope to have a fleet of 90 trucks converted to hybrid hydrogen-diesel and the plant built,” Pickup says. “The hype around hydrogen has been huge, but we don’t want to be a hype play.”