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Current Water gets funding for ammonia-to-hydrogen technology

Current Water Technologies has received a contract worth about $250,000 from Highland Engineering...

IMAGE: Current Water Technologies' ammEL H2 system

One of Current Water’s ammEL H2 systems. (Courtesy Current Water Technologies)

Current Water Technologies has received a contract worth about $250,000 from Highland Engineering Inc. to continue developing its patent-pending AmmEl H2 technology in Michigan.

Current Water’s technology produces green hydrogen from the ammonia (a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen) it removes from wastewater, stormwater, sewage effluent and mine wastewater. The system reduces the ammonia in the water to less than one milligram per litre.

The Guelph, Ont.-based company has spent the past 15 years developing its ammonium electrochemical system for treating ammonia – which is toxic to fish and other aquatic animals – in municipal and industrial wastewater. Current Water’s system can convert that ammonia into nitrogen gas, without producing other contaminants, such as nitrate or nitrous oxide, in the process.

Although the company’s previous systems were proven to work under good conditions, they were ineffective at near-zero temperatures. The newest pilot project, which Highland is supporting, will operate effectively at near-zero temperatures thanks to a new electrochemical reactor.

The reactor also allows the capture of fuel-grade hydrogen gas and chlorine gas used as a disinfectant.

Possibilities of the technology

The AmmEL system is fully automated and remotely monitored, giving it a relatively small footprint.

“We produce no greenhouse gas, we generate a revenue stream of hydrogen gas, (and) we generate a revenue stream of carbon credit,” said Dr. Gene Shelp, Current Water’s CEO. “We can produce a disinfectant, chlorine gas, as another valuable byproduct that can be used by the polity or industry to disinfect their water, wastewater or drinking water.”

Beyond the environmental benefits, Shelp also noted producing these valuable byproducts will reduce users’ operating costs.

Hydrogen produced during the process can be utilized in various ways, from vehicle fuel to local electricity production. The wastewater application is not limited to municipal use and can be implemented in manufacturing, biogas and fertilizer industries, to name a few.

Highland got involved after Current Water was approached by the University of Illinois, “who liked what (we) were doing,” Shelp said.

Shelp said the company aims to have a commercial product in operation during the next 12 to 24 months. He said, “several players” worldwide are interested in working with the company, though he was not ready to reveal any details.

“Our goal is to see this technology in use globally,” Shelp said. “It doesn’t have to be in a cold environment. Ammonia is now a major issue at every municipal wastewater treatment plant globally, and most people convert ammonium to nitrate, which is a carcinogen. They dump it into our lakes, streams and groundwater. This system will prevent all that.”

At first, Shelp and Current Water were motivated by its unique position in the hydrogen landscape and the multiple revenue streams presented by its technology. But as more and more commitments to net-zero emissions sprouted over the years, he realized the potential scope for the technology.

“We’re the only people, to my knowledge, treating a major contaminant that every municipal wastewater treatment plant must deal with,” Shelp said. “Then we generate all these benefits for our clients.”

Shelp and Current Water

Shelp has earned undergraduate degrees in wildlife management and earth sciences and a Ph.D. in environmental geochemistry from the University of Guelph. He holds a master’s degree in geology from Queen’s University.

He founded the company, then called EMPAR Technologies Inc., in 1996 with his brother Dr. Barry Shelp, a plant physiology and biochemistry professor at the University of Guelph, and his postdoctoral supervisor at the university, Ward Chesworth.

Initially, the company’s focus was on mining technology due to Shelp’s previous experience in the industry. However, he soon recognized the importance of ammonium and made the switch.

“Eventually, we moved from direct mining applications to the development of electric chemical water treatment systems for all applications, whether it’s drinking water, wastewater or high-purity water,” said Shelp.

The company’s name was changed to Current Water in 2016.

Other Current Water technologies

The company produces other related technology, including electrostatic deionization systems that lower the amount of dissolved solids in water. Water containing arsenic, nitrate, fluoride, perchlorate, ammonia, sulphate metals or other ionic compounds can be treated. Using the same technology, valuable metals or nutrients can also be recovered from waste streams.

Current Water also produces a NitrEL system, an electrochemical water treatment process that reduces nitrate concentrations in contaminated drinking water, groundwater and industrial wastewater by converting the nitrate to nitrogen gas.

Hydrogen technology and applications are receiving increasing attention within the sustainability sector.

In 2020, the Canadian government released a hydrogen strategy outlining processes that can help achieve net-zero emissions, creating up to 350,000 green jobs and becoming a global industrial leader in clean, renewable fuels by 2050.

Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research’s European Commission estimates the global green hydrogen market will reach US$11 trillion by 2050 and states, “hydrogen looks poised to become a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Highland Engineering, founded in 1986, is a preferred small business supplier of ground support equipment to all U.S. Department of Defence agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, and many industrial companies. One of the company’s related projects is a water purification system sold to the U.S. Armed Forces, with over 200 units sold to FEMA forces and NATO countries.

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