Canada’s Hydrogen Journey – Four Generations of Stuarts

The Business Section of the Globe and Mail (Saturday December 5) included a double spread article on “Hydrogen” focused on and Ballard Power Systems of Burnaby BC. The time for the “hydrogen economy“ may have arrived. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and several provinces have begun to roll our Hydrogen Roadmaps and the Nuclear Innovation Institute has included hydrogen technologies and applications as one of its focus areas. I sit on the Bruce Innovates Steering Committee which oversees development of hydrogen infrastructure projects in Bruce County. While the Globe article examined Ballard’s work on hydrogen fuel cells – there is much more to Canada’s hydrogen story.

First I want to thank Edward Stuart of Hydrogen Optimized for sharing the Stuart family 100+ year hydrogen journey which I summarized at the November 2020 Hydrogen Business Council’s “Hydrogen Sustainability and Finance Conference” and on which this blog is based.

Genesis of the Hydrogen Vision

In 1905 Alexander T. Stuart (Gen I) employed as a summer student in Niagara Falls with the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPCO-for-runner of Ontario Hydro and now OPG). Alexander was given the challenging task of proposing an economic use of excess hydro-electric power in Ontario. A.T Stuart proposed that large scaleelectrolysis of water to produce valuable hydrogen and oxygen feedstocks for industry sury would be a good way to utilize surplus electrical energy.

Initial Development of the Stuart Cell

A few years passed before A.T Stuart startedbuilding his first prototype electrolyzer in 1912. Then in 1913 the Federal Department of Agriculturestarted funding development of hydrogen generation for use in ammonia and fertilizer production. Then in 1918 first large scale Stuart Electrolyserwas builtin San Francisco for theStuart Oxygen company.

Optimization of the Stuart Cell

Seeing these promising developments HEPCO, under the leadership of Sir Adam Beck, set-up a laboratory for Alexander Stuart to develop his hydrogen technologies for the Department of the Interior.  The early prototype Stuart Cells were optimized in the period from 1918 to 1927. In 1927, A.T Stuart filed his first patent for “Cells” – first of more than 50 patents in hydrogen filed by the Stuart family in the coming decades. In fact most electrolysers today contain features licenced from these original Stuart patents.

Stuart Cell Commercialization

By the late 1920’s commercialization of hydrogen systems began to ramp up. General Electric was thefirst of six companies to licence the technology from the government of Canada and A.T. Stuart.  From 1920 onwards more than 1000 electrolysis systems built in 100 countries using the early Stuart technology.

The Development of Hydrogen Applications

Then in the period 1933-1936 an experimental electrolysis demonstration plant was built and operated in Leaside, now a very attractive and well-treed residential neighborhood in Toronto. TheHydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario invested $90,000 (lots of money in those days)in a demonstration plant and in the identification of other markets for hydrogen produced with off-peak power including synthetic fuels, synthesis gas production, and the direct reduction of iron ore.  Then in 1934 HEPCO canceled any funding or involvement in hydrogen as part of the “Hepburn Hydro Policy” which stopped all work on development of uses for surplus power.  

Hydrogen in World War II

Stuart Cellswere deployed in confidential projects to produce hydrogen to reduce Ontario’s demand for hydrocarbon fuels that could be exported to support the war effort and A.T Stuart served as a “hydrogen expert” for the British Empire intelligence. Around the same time his son A.K Stuart (Gen II) became an officer for the Royal Canadian Navy serving in the North Atlantic where he learned about the German developmental hydrogen U-Boatprogram in the later days of the War.

Electrolyser Corporation 

Then in 1948 father and son, A.T and A.K, formed the Electrolyser Corporation which A.K. (Sandy) Stuart ran for the next 50+ years. Sandy built and expanded the company in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the world wide demand of water electrolysers grew – with almost all of the installations outside of Canada.

Then in the 1960’s NASA’s Apollo Moon Landing Program created a large demand for liquid hydrogen to fuel the huge Saturn V moon rockets.  The Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) technology that could produces large quantities amounts hydrogen from natural gas feedstock was developed.            

Interest in Hydrogen at Scale  

OPEC energy crisis of the 1970’s combined with the anticipated low cost of nuclear electricity led to projections that electrolysis could compete with SMR hydrogen in large scale applications. Driven by this vision Sandy Stuart workedonimproved and larger electrolysis equipment to address this potential multi-MW scale market.  The “EI-250” electrolyzer was developed in this time frame in a joint venture with Hydro Quebec and Noranda Mines and electrolysis technology was scaled to 100 MW units.

A.K Stuart Achievements and EDC

In the mid 1960’s Electrolyser Corporation was bidding on a 150 MW project in India but the Canadian instead leader lost order because of the export financing that was provided to its Italian competitor.

A.K Stuart addressed this situation with the Canadian government and the helped to justify the creation of Export Development Corp (EDC) which supports Canadian exporters to this day. In the 1990’s Sandy Stuartwas appointed as EDC Chairmen EDC business volume grew from $8 B/a to $28 B/a. Sandy Stuart wasnamed tothe Order of Canadafor his EDC and hydrogen leadership 

Stuart Energy Systems

The demand forindustrial electrolysers slumped to a new low in the 1990’s and Electrolyser Corp broadened its lines of business and was renamed Stuart Energy.  Sandyled the development of related hydrogen energy and fuelling projects including: large scale hydrogen storage, small packaged hydrogen production models, containerized hydrogen plants.  In addition, the first bus and car fuelling stations developed in North America.

Sandy Stuart’s son Andrew Stuart (Gen III), led development of new hydrogen technologies that came into demand to reduce air born particulates when he joined Stuart Energy. Andrew Stuart became President and CEO of Stuart Energy in the late 1990’s. Stuart Energy became a pubic company public on the TSX raising for $ 600 Million Cdn.

In 2005 Stuart Energy Systems was acquired by Hydrogenics which in turn was acquired by Cummins in 2019. 

Hydrogen Optimized

Andrew Stuartand his son Edward Stuart (Gen IV) formed Hydrogen Optimized in 2017 with the goal of developing and commercializing a new generation of large-sale water electrolysis technology. Hydrogen Optimized delivered a key-note presentation at 2020 HBC Conference.  

A Truly Canadian Success Story

The development of hydrogen technologies is a truly Canadian story written by four generations of Stuarts. Many leaders and companies in the Canadian hydrogen industry have been inspired by the Stuarts including Ballard Power Systems, Hydrogenics, and Next Hydrogen Inc.

Canada has been a leading exporter of hydrogen technologies and systems but recently the federal government has recognized the need to develop a “Hydrogen Strategy” for Canada with consultations starting in 2019 and ramping up in summer of 2020. Ontario and Alberta are also preparing Hydrogen strategies relevant to the resources needs of these provinces.

Ontario’s investment in the life extension of its CANDU fleet and the soon to be released Canadian SMR Action Plan positions Canada to become a leading in producer of “green” Electrolytic Hydrogen – underpinned by 100 years of Canadian development of hydrogen technologies led by the Stuart family.