Two scientists who were searching for fossil fuels beneath the surface of northeastern France were surprised to find something that could significantly boost efforts to address the climate catastrophe.Directors of research at France’s National Centre of Scientific Research, Jacques Pironon and Phillipe De Donato, were evaluating the methane content of the Lorraine mining basin’s subsurface using a “world first” specialized probe that could measure gases dissolved in the water of subterranean rock formations.
The probe discovered minimal hydrogen concentrations a few hundred meters below the surface. This was not a huge surprise to us, Pironon told that, adding that it’s typical to find trace levels close to a borehole’s surface. But the level of concentration increased as the probe descended. It was 14% at 1,100 meters and 20% at 1,250 meters below the surface.
This was unexpected, according to Pironon. It suggested that there was a substantial hydrogen reserve underneath. After doing calculations, they calculated that the deposit might have anywhere from 6 million to 250 million metric tons of hydrogen.
According to Pironon, this might make it one of the biggest deposits of “white hydrogen” ever found. An already fervent interest in the gas has been heightened by this discovery.
White hydrogen, often known as “natural,” “gold,” or “geologic” hydrogen, is produced or found naturally in the Earth’s crust and has gained some notoriety as a climate miracle.
Burning hydrogen only yields water, which makes it a particularly appealing candidate for use as a clean energy source in sectors such as steel, shipping, and aviation, whose energy requirements are so great that they can hardly be satisfied by renewable sources like solar and wind power.
Despite being the most prevalent element in the universe, hydrogen is typically found in combination with other molecules. Nowadays, fossil fuels are used almost exclusively in an energy-intensive process to create hydrogen for commercial use.The colors of a rainbow are used to represent the many forms of hydrogen. Coal is used to make “brown” and methane gas to make “gray.” Gray and “blue” hydrogen are identical, but the pollution that warms the earth is prevented from entering the atmosphere by being trapped.
The most promising in terms of climate change is “green” hydrogen, which is produced by splitting water using renewable energy. Production is still costly and done on a small scale, though.Because of this, there has been a surge in interest in white hydrogen in recent years—a potentially plentiful but unexplored source of clean-burning energy.
‘We haven’t been looking in the right places’
Natural hydrogen doesn’t exist, I would have told you that four years ago if you had asked me that, according to US Geological Survey geochemist Geoffrey Ellis. “We know that hydrogen exists,” he stated, although experts believed that significant accumulations were not feasible.Then he learned of Mali. This West African nation is arguably the source of the present fascination in white hydrogen.A driller was left with burns in the village of Bourakébougou in 1987 when he was smoking a cigarette and unintentionally leaned over the edge of a water well.
The well was quickly sealed off and left forgotten until 2011, when an oil and gas company decided to unplug it and discovered that it was generating 98% hydrogen gas. The village was powered by hydrogen, and over ten years later, it is still producing.In 2018, a paper concerning the well was published, and Ellis and other members of the scientific community took notice. He first reasoned that since “we just know that this can’t happen,” there had to be a problem with the research.After the epidemic struck, he had more time on his hands and began excavating. He came to the realization that “we just haven’t been looking for it, we haven’t been looking in” as he read more.the proper locations.
Ellis has been a petroleum geochemist since the 1980s, and the new findings intrigue him. He saw firsthand how the US shale gas industry grew quickly, completely changing the energy landscape. We are currently experiencing what I believe to be a second revolution, he declared.Isabelle Moretti, a white hydrogen specialist and scientific researcher at the Universities of Pau et des Pays de l’Adour and Sorbonne, said that white hydrogen is “very promising.””At this point, the resource is not the question. but where may one locate significant financial reserves?” she said that.
A slew of startups
White hydrogen is produced by dozens of processes, although it is still unclear how significant natural deposits originate.Geologists frequently concentrate on two processes: “radiolysis,” which is the breakdown of water molecules caused by radiation, and “serpentinization,” which is the reaction of water with iron-rich rocks to form hydrogen.All throughout the world, including the US, eastern Europe, Russia, Australia, Oman, France, and Mali, white hydrogen deposits have been discovered.
Some have been found by chance, while others have been found by looking for hints, such as shallow, elliptical depressions in the landscape known as “fairy circles” that may leak hydrogen.According to Ellis, there may be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen in the world. This would be far more than the 500 million tons of hydrogen expected to be produced yearly by 2050, as well as the 100 million tons of hydrogen produced annually at the moment, he said.
The majority of this will most likely be in extremely minor accumulations, very far offshore, or just too deep to be economically feasible to produce, the speaker said. He did, however, add that 500 million tons of hydrogen might be created for 200 years if only 1% could be located and produced.Many startups find the prospect enticing.Currently, Gold Hydrogen, an Australian company, is drilling in South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. It chose that location after looking through the state’s records and learning that several boreholes with extremely high hydrogen contents had been drilled there in the 1920s. The prospectors left them since they were solely interested in fossil fuels.
“What we’re seeing has us really excited,” Neil McDonald, managing director, stated. He told CNN that although there is still work to be done in terms of testing and drilling, the company may begin early production as late as 2024.Stunning investments are being made in certain startups. White hydrogen start-up Koloma, based in Denver, has raised $91 million from investors, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm founded by Bill Gates. However, the company has not disclosed its particular drilling location in the US or its target date for commercialization.
In 2019, Natural Hydrogen Energy, a Denver-based firm formed by geochemist Viacheslav Zgonnik, conducted an exploratory hydrogen borehole in Nebraska and expects to drill additional wells. Zgonnik stated that the globe is “very close to the first commercial projects.””Natural hydrogen is a solution that will enable us to accelerate our efforts to combat climate change,” he declared.
From hype to reality
Converting theoretical potential into a financial reality will be a challenge for these companies, as well as for scientists.Ellis stated, “There might be a few decades where there’s a lot of trial and error and false starts.” However, speed is essential. “That won’t really be of much use if it takes us 200 years to develop the resource.”Numerous startups, however, are optimistic. Some anticipate commercialization in years rather than decades. “We have all the technology we require, albeit with a few minor adjustments,” Zgonnik declared.
Obstacles still exist. Rules are a barrier in certain nations. It’s also necessary to calculate costs. Based on calculations using the Mali well, it is estimated that the production of white hydrogen might cost about $1 per kilogram, whereas green hydrogen could cost about $6 per kilogram. However, if deeper drilling is necessary to reach big resources, white hydrogen may become more expensive very rapidly.Pironon and De Donato plan to drill down to 3,000 meters in the Lorraine basin in order to obtain a more precise estimate of the amount of white hydrogen present.