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Vortex Energy developing hydrogen salt storage caverns in N.L.

Domes being drilled are possibly the largest in Canada

Vortex Energy CEO Paul Sparkes. (Courtesy Vortex Energy Corp.)
Vortex Energy CEO Paul Sparkes. (Courtesy Vortex Energy Corp.)

Vortex Energy Corp. (VRTX-CN) is moving forward with its ambitious plan to transform vast underground salt caverns in Newfoundland and Labrador into several million cubic metres of hydrogen storage capacity. 

The junior mining and exploration company based in Newfoundland and Labrador recently resumed drilling operations on the second of two gigantic salt domes it is developing, with an eye toward providing storage capacity for green hydrogen World Energy GH2 is to begin producing as early as 2025. 

Vortex's Robinsons River Salt Project could play a significant role in the eventual rollout of World Energy's $12 billion Stephenville green hydrogen plant that is part of a major new Canadian production and export initiative.

Construction on the Stephenville facility is to begin in the coming months and marks the first step toward fulfilling the August 2022 Canada-Germany hydrogen pact signed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. 

This agreement will see Canada become a major supplier of green hydrogen to Germany. Once the Stephenville plant becomes operational, World Energy will need the abundant storage capacity Vortex intends to build as part of a staging space along this transatlantic supply chain. 

Once the hydrogen is extracted it will be stored, converted into ammonia for shipment to Germany, then converted back into hydrogen by the end user. 

N.L. salt domes to serve as strategic hubs

"We know that Newfoundland and Labrador will continue to grow as a major producer and exporter of green energy and that the province is looking at potential storage opportunities," Vortex Energy CEO Paul Sparkes told Sustainable Biz Canada. 

"The salt caverns we are in the process of developing are ideal natural formations with the kinds of geological characteristics that are particularly suited for safe and efficient storage of hydrogen . . ." 

"We're hopeful that World Energy will be a major customer for our storage facilities once the Stephenville plant is up and running . . . Hydrogen storage is not a new phenomenon. In North America, we're already seeing construction underway on the ACES hydrogen project in Utah led by Chevron and Mitsubishi. We see an opportunity to replicate something on that scale in Newfoundland," Sparkes added.

As demand for hydrogen as a clean fuel for industrial, transport, and other economic sectors accelerates, the need for secure hydrogen storage will grow correspondingly. 

Vortex believes it has a vital role to play in the development of green hydrogen as an increasingly substantial component of Newfoundland and Labrador's renewable energy infrastructure.

"When the hydrogen is produced, it's got to go somewhere, it's got to be stored somewhere. If it's not loaded immediately onto a container ship - and naturally due to logistics and scheduling you won't normally be able to do that - the hydrogen needs to be stored for later shipment." Sparkes said.

"The salt domes we're developing serve as strategic hubs that constitute a key intermediate point in the supply chain. They will enable hydrogen producers to establish a reliable distribution and export network across the eastern seaboard in the coming years and we want to be part of that process."

Salt caverns provide the best option for hydrogen storage

Salt caverns have been used for many decades to store natural gas and other industrial liquids for eventual export. The salt domes being drilled by Vortex are possibly the largest such geological formations in Canada, and the company has partnered with the University of Alberta to develop the best technological and engineering means of transforming the caverns into hydrogen storage chambers.

"It's a proven engineering technology that works, that's been around a long time, and is far safer and more cost-effective than building above-ground infrastructure. Led by the World Energy project, there will be a significant opportunity to export green hydrogen to Germany, other European countries, and to the world as a whole. This is just the beginning," Sparkes said.

A 2020 Canadian Nuclear Laboratories study entitled Geologic feasibility of underground hydrogen storage in Canada, published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, has already confirmed salt caverns and similar geological formations provide significant advantages over above-ground energy storage containers. 

According to this and other similar studies, salt caverns leave a negligible carbon footprint, reduce environmental impact, and offer important long-term investment cost savings.

A 2024 paper in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews confirms the underlying viability of adapting salt caverns for storing hydrogen.

"Underground geologic storage of hydrogen not only offers substantial cost reductions and buffer capacity to address disruptions in supply or seasonal demands but also . . . ensures continuity of delivery, and helps control congestion in the (supply chain)."

Vortex did experience a brief setback at Robinsons River. After commencing drilling on its second core well on Jan. 16, a hydraulic pump broke resulting in the loss of the drill bits. The mishap - attributed to human error - obliged the company to seal the hole with cement and resume drilling in a new location.

Sparkes remains "optimistic" the second well will confirm the vast size of the underground salt dome. 

"This is basic mining exploration and having issues during the drilling phase is not uncommon," he noted. "We know the salt is there obviously and it's simply a matter of determining how deep the deposit is. But we're very happy with the progress we've made thus far and we are well funded to resume drilling on the second core well."

Newfoundland's resource-based economy

A native Newfoundlander, Sparkes has long been committed to serving the interests of his province. A veteran political insider, he served as executive assistant to two premiers, Clyde Wells (1989-96) and Brian Tobin (1996-2000). 

"I then went to Ottawa to be director of operations and Atlantic Canada assistant for Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Overall I spent about 15 years in politics . . ." Sparkes recalled.

After leaving Ottawa, Sparkes was appointed executive vice-president at CTV Globe Media and remained in that position until 2011 when Bell Media acquired the company. After spending several years running a merchant bank, Sparkes was hired in March 2023 to serve as CEO and director of Vortex Energy and oversee Robinsons River.

"I'm very passionate about about my country and my province and I'm also very passionate about the future of green energy and the opportunities that are in my home province to produce what will be a very important source of renewable energy down the road," Sparkes said.

"I believe the majority of Newfoundlanders, as well as those living on our West Coast, support our wind and hydrogen projects because this is a resource-based economy – we have always been focused on mining for oil and gas.

"We've always been self-sufficient, whether it's fishing our coastal waters or mining the resources that are found underground. And of course we use our water resources to generate electricity. Now we're in the process of using another resource – wind – to deliver abundant green energy that will power another source of renewable energy – hydrogen."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was edited after publish to correctly identify the town of Stephenville, N.L. The original article misidentified the town as Stephenson. Sustainable Biz Canada apologizes for the error.

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