Targeting Net Zero: Recovering Hydrogen From Heavy Oil – How These Top Three Methods Will Likely Evolve Over The Next Few Decades


Hydrogen is being considered as the ‘energy carrier of the future.’ Hydrogen is an emission free form of energy. Hence, it doesn’t cause pollution and is more sustainable. It can be used to power hydrogen-powered vehicles and generate electricity. However, extracting hydrogen, for example, from heavy oils, has not proven to be economical.

But with advancements in technology and the role of AI in renewable energy— which allows us to make adjustments to ensure maximized efficiency, conversion and even distribution— new, more practical methods are cropping up.

Hydrogen is abundantly found as part of a compound with other elements, thus it needs to be effectively recovered to form pure Hydrogen (H2). Its potential is being studied by energy management consulting firms, related organizations and researchers in order to form a solution for powering the world in a 100% clean and renewable manner.

Learn more about how hydrogen is recovered from sources like heavy oil and the future of hydrogen as an energy source by continuing below.

Recovering Hydrogen from Heavy Oil

One such method of hydrogen recovery that is being studied is the extraction of the element from fossil fuels, such as heavy oils. They contain high levels of hydrogen, making them suitable for extraction. Used on their own, heavy oils damage the environment and health of humans due to its harmful emissions of sulphur and nitrous oxide.

The primary damaging emission is sulfur, which is the reason why the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has put restrictions on these oils as fuels and their sulphur content. As a result of the restrictions, hydrogen consulting solution companies have begun reviewing current hydrogen production processes with the aim of reducing the sulphur content, as well as alternatives to heavy oil

Methods of Hydrogen Recovery

The three main methods of hydrogen recovery from heavy oil include:

1.     Desulphurization

 Companies remove sulphur from the heavy oils through a process called ‘hydrodesulphurization.’ In this method, the hydrogen reacts with the sulphur to form hydrogen sulphide, which is captured and further processed in a subsequent step. The resulting extracted chemical is the fuel that is then used for ships and vehicles.

However, the viability and usefulness of desulphurization methods largely depend on the properties of the heavy oil, including its sulphur content, viscosity, boiling point, etc.

Other desulphurization methods, such as oxidative desulphurization, are being studied to perfect the process for the future. The combination of the two methods can serve to be effective in completely removing the sulphur content.

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2.     Partial Oxidization (POX)

This method is a highly beneficial method of using hydrogen as an energy carrier because it extracts the most hydrogen. In this process, a limited amount of oxygen is added to the heavy oil by heating the feedstock. This process of oxygen and heavy oil combining is known as oxidization. The recovered hydrogen is then used as fuel.

Up until recently, this method was considered too expensive. However, researchers have discovered a technique that could enable the recovery of hydrogen from oil sands. These oil sands can serve as potentially viable oil reservoirs that could generate large amounts of hydrogen.

The process of POX is employed within the oil reservoirs, wherein oxygen is pumped underground inside them. The process of oxidization occurs when the oxygen mixes in with the heavy oil. As a result, hydrogen gas is generated, which can be collected from the wellhead.

Technological advancements are currently being made to develop this successful method. For instance, work is being done to develop a membrane system called hygenerator to filter the hydrogen gas from the underground streams to enhance the purity of the gas. This membrane is being tested in underground reservoirs to assess its efficiency.

In the coming decades, this opportunity will undoubtedly be the dominating commercial method of hydrogen recovery and pure hydrogen energy because of its cost-effectiveness.

3.     Steam Reforming

While partial oxidization is the best way of recovering hydrogen from heavy oil, steam reforming is most commonly used. It is estimated that 48% of hydrogen production is done through the method of steam reforming.

This method uses natural gas as the feedstock, which is combined with steam under extremely warm temperatures. The resulting gas formed includes hydrogen, carbon monoxide (CO), and carbon dioxide (CO2).

The carbon monoxide is further transformed into carbon dioxide that yields greater production of hydrogen. The resulting hydrogen is purified using ‘pressure swing absorption’ or other related processes.

The Road Ahead

Perhaps the only downside of hydrogen recovery is that it is not economically viable due to the increased costs of extracting hydrogen from heavy oils and related fossil fuels. Governments, however, are gradually developing infrastructure to facilitate hydrogen production methods. For this reason, it is predicted that in the coming decades, hydrogen – be it through heavy oil recovery or electrolysers – will be spearheading the transition towards non-renewable sources of energy.

While the method of steam reforming is widely used today, it is estimated that in the future, pure hydrogen energy will likely be produced using the method of partial oxidization instead. As mentioned, this process has the potential to be more cost-effective and efficient than the other two methods discussed.


Due to the massive potential of hydrogen becoming the primary energy carrier of the coming decades, it would be wise to begin investing in this renewable energy source as soon as possible. If this opportunity interests you, do not hesitate to reach out to Pangea Strategic Intelligence today to gain deeper expert insights into this subject matter.

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