Innovator, Hydragas Founder
Vision, Passion & Reality
Our gas extraction innovation guru is Philip Morkel. He is the innovator of Hydragas’ world-leading process technology and design. As such, his engineering experience came from developing megaprojects globally. He led many engineering and constructing resource projects in Africa and other continents. The Hydragas company specialty is its ability to recover methane gas dissolved in large, deep water bodies. Further, it has upside potential to enable a multi-billion dollar, low-carbon, renewable energy business.
Philip had his first introduction to Lake Kivu in December 2001. Even experts still considered it undeveloped, misunderstood and a mysterious resource. The oil and gas industry terms it “unconventional”. In fact, the lake did not fit the industry norms as a potential resource. It still doesn’t.
Philip’s early work focused on studying and testing methods of recovering this form of natural gas. It was this testing that drew the attention of the Rwandan authorities and international experts. Talk about mission creep. This project is no longer a local energy matter, it is assuming a global impact role as we respond to the need to avert gigatons of carbon emission if Lake Kivu erupts.
Changes Motivating the Lake Kivu Project
The motivation for extracting Lake Kivu’s gas was driven at first by the local needs of communities for energy in an energy-starved region. Governments had long pursued the means of gas extraction with limited, small-scale success. Hydragas responded to the need by looking at more effective gas extraction methods. We were successful in the discovery and innovation process. But financing such projects, with “innovation” and “Africa” in the same sentence is very difficult.
However, global issues of climate change and emission reductions now dominate this narrative. What we learned and can now see is that Lake Kivu’s importance assumes a global level of impact for carbon reduction. The value of what we can achieve by developing Lake Kivu, with the best scientific and engineering solution, is far more impactful than most solutions and much lower cost per ton.
Lake Kivu is a giant, natural CCS. That is a Carbon Capture and Storage system. With our project plan and a few additions, such as making protein or ethanol out of “waste CO2”, we can make much more value and benefit than we set out to do originally. We can transition the CCS into a CCUS system, beneficiating the process to make energy and store even more carbon.
An Lake Kivu International Conference in Gisenyi, Rwanda
The World Bank organised this international conference on Lake Kivu extraction in Rwanda in 2007. They invited other multilateral institutions, the world’s academic experts and developers. Governments of both bordering countries were in attendance. Philip was co-opted to an expert advisory group as the conference concluded. This was for his gas extraction expertise and recent on-lake experience. This appointed Expert Group included six of the best global scientists working on the lake. We undertook to review the rules of use of the lake and report back within weeks.
The Group ended up working for three years on this task. It took much longer, than the anticipated few weeks, to review and reset these rules. The conference convenors charged the Group with reviewing and, if needed, updating the “1986 Reglements Socigaz“.
We checked the 1986 document for acceptability against updated research on the lake’s stability. They were deficient, for many key reasons. We therefore decided to re-draft these into an all-new regulatory framework. Thus the new “MPs” now govern Lake Kivu’s acceptable resource use. In fact, both parliaments have formally recognised them as such in 2010.
Transition of scientific work into practical resource use
Philip was thus co-author and scribe for the current, formal issue of the regulatory document. It is titled the Management Prescriptions for Lake Kivu Development.
These “MPs” enable and form a basis to regulate all developers of the lake’s resource. Individual scientists published the early work from 1935 to 2007, developing an extensive scientific body of work. Experts had extensively hypothesized on key understandings of the origin and nature of the resource. The lake’s uniqueness was apparent. Methods of extraction were crude and simple, what we term as ‘legacy” methods. But was missing was any established regulation to protect the lake and people.
Historically, we did not understand much on the impact that exploitation method might have on the lake’s key density structure. But understanding this structure was also key to its potential impact, both to its environment and the community. The MPs document summarised the three-year effort to model and connect the science with exploitation methods. We had to foresee their potential outcomes as a test of acceptability.
We took three years to reach consensus and confidence in our choices. These choices centred on the outcomes of different extration methods. Our delay was because of divergent views, primarily on the safest means of gas extraction for the long term. Each method can have very different impacts on the stability of the lake’s density structure. The team understood the scale of risk. These outweighed the risk of not extracting the gas soon. But, more importantly, the team understood the risk of doing extraction badly. In fact a bad outcome could be fatal to millions.
Drafting the Management Prescriptions
The Expert Group finally issued the MPs document formally in June 2009. We translated it into French in February 2010. The French version was required for it to be acceptable in the DRC. Since the MPs’ publication, Philip has a continuing role in an advisory capacity to the governments. More importantly, he is now working to improve on his compliant and value-adding gas recovery design, using his unique extraction technology.
Philip has also co-authored a recent academic paper with Dr Finn Hirslund, of COWI in Copenhagen. This paper provides deeper analyses for updating our knowledge-base of Lake Kivu. Indeed, the paper updates and interprets impacts from observed changes to the lake strata since 2009.
We therefore raise some significant concerns from these observations. In fact, the LKMP monitoring program has catalogued observed changes underway. We can interpret that these have already raised danger levels in the lake by diminishing the density structure’s strength. We discuss, in the paper, specific mechanisms that we see as the root-cause of the problems. Then we made proposals to mitigate the range of damaging impacts.
Some recommendations are in the form of changed or added compliance needs. Philip also sits on the Expert Advisory Panel of the currently designated regulator. This is the Lake Kivu Monitoring Program (LKMP). The LKMP fills the role that must be assumed by a bilateral authority in future.
Gas Extraction Innovation Concept
In 2002, Philip had invented a new processing concept for gas extraction for Lake Kivu. Hydragas then pilot-tested it successfully from January to May 2004.
We ran six months of pilot runs to demonstrate the operation and gather detailed data. When requested, we ran further demos for investors and government. These pilot-plant demos included several staged for the Rwandan Ministry of Energy.
Our design concept was a departure from the conventional design. We proposed many needed variations to the “legacy” extraction concept. Union Chimique de Belge had first developed their concept project and built it in 1962-65. This “UPEGAZ” unit ran until 2003. By this stage in 2003, equipment breakdowns were becoming persistent and expensive. It was shut down permanently by 2004.
In 2005 World Congress of Chemical invited Philip to present a paper in Glasgow, Scotland. The paper’s topic was the two-phase gas-water physics, the extraction design concept and field pilot-test results up to 2004. The patented design was based on real performance data from the pilot program. Hydragas upgraded its model of the process plant concept to be completely submerged. It is designed to stretch from 12m to 460m underwater, operating as a sophisticated, multi-stage auto-siphon.
Philip brings his new technology, a radical concept development and advanced engineering expertise, to this development. At the same time he applies his local knowledge, country connections, the proverbial “10,000 hours of experience” and history to the project team. These are going to be key skills for developing this series of energy production projects. Certainly, he is supported by several experienced members of the pilot-project and feasibility team that started in 2003 or 2008.
Philip will also deploy his deep experience in oil & gas engineering and construction, with his development of energy projects to execute this plan. Further, he applies his 18 years of experience on Kivu into developing detailed project planning. This plan for development includes first building a demo project, then a series of 50 or 100 MWe projects. Plant design for the projects has advanced to two iterations at feasibility level. We updated these to be able to estimate the capital cost and construction schedule to maintain the financial model.
The process systems are designed to achieve all of the mandated requirements in the MPs. Consequently we are prepared for any anticipated updates to the MPs. If changes are included and ratified, the Hydragas design team is ready to incorporate modifications to the demo plant design.
Our gas extraction development path
Hydragas is a unique, disruptive technology. From this, its advantages include that it has three times higher gas recovery (90% vs 30%). It produces up to five times the net methane output from the resource (84% vs 18.5%). For these reasons, the extraction plant also has as much as ten times better economic returns as its competitors. The output is significantly more beneficial for the host countries than any other option. Hence this benefit derives from class-leading methane recovery and net energy output. From this, we see its continuing development as a clear path to market dominance.
We have set out Hydragas’ detailed business plan in separate documents released to investors. For instance, it details the comprehensive background and key technology learnings. It identifies the work and milestones completed to date. From these we established a clear narrative of the business concepts, drivers and prospects for the development. Therefore, we describe the evolution of patented, proven technology into a series of energy projects. This has great business potential with leading, strong economic returns on Lake Kivu, for investors, communities and for both governments.
Hydragas’s program of commercial-scale projects on the lake is a stepping-stone to other cleantech ventures. With those underway, we plan to use our know-how to further develop the technology’s uses in parallel emissions-reduction programs. Hence, future plans will focus primarily on developing additional methane resources in aquifers, seas and oceans.
Hydragas extraction strengths and advantages
Hydragas achieves technical success through applying expertise and innovation. Product development will continue with the aim of combating climate heating, particularly the emissions from submerged permafrost.
A stream of projects will be built with each geographic application, using variants of the design. Each of the new versions will allow us to identify and implement site-specific improvements to the process. Innovation was at the core of creating the breakthrough technology. We incorporate learnings and data from the tested Lake Kivu technology, in each design for next-generation gas extraction plants. As a result, we have growing confidence in their effectiveness, but will want to continue with operational improvements.
Hydragas has registered a Rwandan subsidiary, Kivugas Energy Limited. This company will form the investment platform in country. A similar entity will be registered in the DRC. Both will acquire and pursue projects through concessions from government and local partnerships. Hydragas can earn further fees by extraction technology licensing, where appropriate. We can also earn support fees for value-added services to any other operations on the lake that use our technology.
Key competitive strengths for our gas extraction lie in:
- Providing benefits from our technological leadership, where:
- Key advantages arise from lowering capital cost,
- Output rises from high gas recovery and leading plant efficiency,
- These factors provide huge economic advantages to operations,
- Combined gas & power plant capex is lowest at ~$4.5m/MWe,
- Net gas recovery >90%, where competitors average ~30%,
- The IP’s capability enables access to 50% more resource than any other process,
- The gas plant makes highest quality natural gas, with >80% methane, above competitors averaging 50-55% methane;
- Delivering better resource stewardship and outcomes for the host countries and communities, through:
- far higher net energy yields (4-5x),
- cheaper energy pricing to users,
- higher taxes paid to the fiscus, and
- 4-5x greater power output potential.
The compliance imperative for gas extraction
Hydragas achieved 100% compliance to the 2009 Management Prescriptions for Lake Kivu Development (MPs). This is an industry-leading capability in our extraction plant design. Our full compliance is unique among its peer developers working on the lake. These MPs govern the technical requirements for long-term, safe use of the lake and its resources. The authors wrote them principally to ensure the benefit to the comminity, to their safety and to the environment.
By 2010, both Rwanda and the DRC parliaments recognized and adopted the 2010 version of the MPs. These MPs now form the authoritative basis for regulation of Lake Kivu development.
Back in 2015 the EU contracted Philip to engage with both governments to draft the Terms of Reference. These ToRs were to written with a view to develop consensus on governance, technical learnings, safety and stability and the technical requirements. The write-up outlined and estimated the specialty teams needed, with some 6-months duration and the engagement process for the review.
In 2019, on their 10th anniversary, the two countries have initiated a review process to consider updates to the MPs. This review is appropriate at the 10th anniversary of their publication. A Dutch firm, Deltares, was appointed to lead the process of review in 2019.
A review of the MPs after a decade
Our initial interactions suggest that this new team has much to learn on the intricacies of the subject matter. They have not followed much of the recommended program. Nor have they connected much with prior Expert Group members. It appears that most contact has been with rogue operators on the lake, who have been unable to comply with the MPs. They have accepted submissions from disaffected scientists that previously objected to the content of the MPs.
The review may still be underway, but communication has been limited, especially with our prior expert group members. To date the review panel has only issued a confusing set of questions to the 2007-2009 Expert Group. The responses acknowledged receipt of our answers. Most questions were based on grievances, complaining of the prior rejection of alternate gas treatment theories. These have been thoroughly debunked in 2008 and 2009, but here we go again.
Some surprising new theories arose in the questions posed, one referencing new gas survey reports. They are suggesting that the methane cannot be biogenic any more. Does this finding “cancel” dozens of prior survey results and hundreds of academic papers? Instead, do the proponents theorise that the methane must be fossil-sourced to better fit the new data set?
Their logic is based simply on the survey’s lower gas content results in the lake. These survey findings came from a different, untested method for deep water measuring of gas concentration. So now we ask where the new theory will lead us? Will all the rules be rewritten around them?
What happens next with the review?
It has been a year since the original experts responded, expressing grave concerns on these new findings. But since then, nothing has been heard in reply. Perhaps the revisionists are still trying to make sense out of a Monty Pythonesque “new theory of everything”.