July 5, 2024

Schulich professors explore hydrogen as alternative fuel for gas burners

$2M in grants opens doors for research that could impact industry
Dr. Fang and his team of graduate students
Leo Fang, third from right, and his team of graduate students. Samantha Lafleur, Communications

Hydrogen could be an alternative for gas burners on both the industrial and household levels, and Schulich School of Engineering assistant professors are leading the charge to investigate this possibility.

A team of researchers, including Drs. Leo Fang and Mustafa Mohamad, both PhD, from the University of Calgary, along with Dr. Sina Kheirkhah, PhD, from the University of British Columbia, were awarded a grant to advance our understanding of using hydrogen fuel for gas burners. 

Notably, their research received $1.2 million from Alberta Innovates’ Hydrogen Centre of Excellence and CONVERGENT Science for studying hydrogen flashback. This is when burner flames propagate backward where the fuel is being injected or mixed, causing potential safety hazards. 

The Schulich professors also received $300,000 from the Alberta Innovates Advance Program for exploring hydrogen combustion instabilities. Fang, who along with Mohamad is with the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, says hydrogen will become very important as we find alternative sources of energy. 

Currently, burners used for electricity and heating homes, as well as HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems in commercial buildings, use natural gas. Using hydrogen instead would reduce carbon emissions associated with combustion, Fang says. 

However, he adds, a challenge with hydrogen lies in creating the right mixture condition of hydrogen and air for safe use. Fang’s team will be seeking solutions to resolve issues such as this and the “flashback phenomenon.”

“There are new characteristics we really want to understand before we apply it to end-user equipment,” Fang says. “That’s why it is significant research for us, not only from the safety perspective of using hydrogen as a fuel, but also its performance because we still want to make sure it fulfils the engineering purpose of certain devices such as gas turbines or power plants.” 

His team has also received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Advantage Program and NSERC Discovery to further their research.

Mohamad is a co-principal investigator on the project. He emphasizes the significance of financial support in pushing their research forward and says the more than $2 million in grants will change the game for their work. 

“It’s going to be tremendous in being able to conduct novel experiments,” says Mohamad. “It’s going to be very helpful in training new personnel, a new generation of engineers that have expertise in hydrogen technology and it’s going to be instrumental in allowing us to make advancements.”

For him, the most fulfilling part of working with hydrogen is being a groundbreaker in the industry. “The most rewarding part is discovering things that have not been discovered before, so a lot of our work is new,” he says. 

“It’s rewarding in a sense that we are breaking ground in a new area, so you can think of it like the first person to climb Everest. I find that very rewarding.”

Fang also highlights the importance of the province in providing leadership for their work.

“We are very lucky that we are in Alberta because there is huge support from the Hydrogen Centre of Excellence, as well as different initiatives within Alberta Innovates and the University of Calgary that are pushing for the energy future,” he says.

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