Canadian utility New Brunswick Power has invested millions of dollars to license a mysterious hydrogen production technology being developed by the Florida-based company Joi Scientific.

The two companies last month said the deal would help NB Power develop the world’s first hydrogen-powered distributed electricity grid. 

But the deployment of hydrogen production stations on the NB Power grid is dependent on Joi Scientific being able to scale up its technology, which is still in the laboratory phase.  

Executives at NB Power and Joi Scientific refused to disclose the value of the deal, but did not dispute a published figure of CAD $13 million (USD $9.8 million).

The partnership was slammed by *New Brunswick Green Party leader David Coon, who told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that NB Power did not have a mandate “to be acting like an angel investor in someone's project in Florida.”

The technology espoused by Joi Scientific “remains a mystery,” he said.

Coon declined to comment further for GTM. But CBC confirmed that searches by scientists at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick had failed to turn up papers relating to the process. The heads of Joi Scientific and NB Power remained tight-lipped over the details.

“We’re specifically not talking about how the technology works because there is additional work we are doing,” said Traver Kennedy, Joi Scientific’s CEO and the former chief strategist at Citrix Systems, a technology company.

Gaëtan Thomas, NB Power’s president and CEO, revealed the technology involved “a nanopulse-driven signal that basically allows [us] to get hydrogen out of saltwater. It’s almost mind-boggling how it works.”

Joi Scientific, which in 2016 raised almost $5 million from investors including GoPro backer Dean Woodman, has six U.S. patents, Kennedy said, and would be publishing scientific papers on the process “perhaps as early as next year.”

Modular hydrogen production

The company describes its technology as a modular hydrogen production unit or system that could provide fuel to drive engines or fuel cells. The units would be housed in containers resembling server racks, said Kennedy.

The production process is not based on electrolysis and has no negative environmental impact, according to Joi Scientific’s website. Also, unlike electrolysis, the process uses seawater instead of pure water, Kennedy said. 

Nor does it involve a surface reaction, he revealed. “We’ve been able to make our system smaller and smaller and yet increase the production of hydrogen,” he commented.

Thomas said he hoped that at scale the process would be able to produce hydrogen at a cost competitive with fossil fuels. He cited an all-in levelized cost of between 5 cents and 8 cents per kilowatt-hour (4 cents to 6 cents USD).

Both companies insisted NB Power had carried out exhaustive due diligence on Joi Scientific’s hydrogen concept. The license signing followed two years of scalability testing on the process, said Kennedy.

A calculated risk

As part of the agreement, NB Power is working alongside Joi Scientific’s team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to build a scaled-up prototype for field trials on the utility’s grid, possibly within a year.

Commercialization of small hydrogen production units might take one or two years, said Thomas at NB Power. Ultimately, Joi Scientific helps to scale the process up to plants with a capacity of 100 megawatts. Thomas said this could take three to five years.

NB Power is hoping to use the technology to decarbonize its generation portfolio. A key goal is to use hydrogen to replace coal at NB Power’s 467-megawatt Belledune plant, which accounts for about 20 percent of the company’s carbon footprint.

Hydrogen could also help NB Power to improve grid resilience, Kennedy said. 

By locating up to 30 hydrogen production stations ranging from 500 kilowatts to 2 megawatts around the electricity network, the utility would be able to guard against blackouts caused by transmission line failures, he said.

Finally, NB Power could act as an agent for the technology across North America. Thomas said taking out the license with Joi Scientific was “a calculated risk.”

Faced with resorting to new hydro or nuclear to replace coal, “It’s a relatively modest investment compared to the options we have in our hands,” he said. “It could actually keep rates lower and create new revenue. There’s a lot of upside here.”

NB Power is the second company to ink a license agreement with Joi Scientific. The first, announced last September, was with MarineMax, the world’s largest boat and yacht retailer, for on-board power systems.

*This story was updated to reflect that David Coon is a member of the New Brunswick Green Party, not the Canadian Green Party.