Buried Hydrogen Chased Globally As Clean Energy Hype Grows

A global gold rush happens to be underway for a long-overlooked resource that, as per the advocates, could go on to play a significant role in transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Geologic hydrogen, which is at times referred to as white, gold, or even natural hydrogen, happens to be a hydrogen gas that is found in its natural form under the Earth’s surface. It is, as a matter of fact, believed to be produced by high-temperature reactions between the water and iron-rich minerals.

It is worth noting that hydrogen has long been billed as one of the numerous potential energy sources that could go on to play a pivotal role when it comes to the energy transition, but most of it gets produced by way of using fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, which is a process that goes on to generate quite prominent greenhouse gas emissions.

Green hydrogen, which happens to be a process that goes on to involve splitting water into hydrogen as well as oxygen by way of using renewable electricity, is indeed one exception from what is called the hydrogen color rainbow. But its development has been held back due to soaring costs in addition to a challenging economic environment.

It is within this context that the momentum has started to build around geologic hydrogen. Exploratory efforts happen to be now underway in nations like the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Colombia, Spain, South Korea, etc.

One of the studies published earlier in March 2024 by Rystad Energy went on to point out that 40 companies happened to be actively searching for geologic hydrogen deposits by the end of 2023, which is up from just 10 that were there in 2020.

The consulting firm, which happened to describe the pursuit of geologic hydrogen as a white gold rush, went on to say that the hype stems from the hopes that an untapped resource could be a game changer when it comes to the clean energy transition.

As per the statement given to CNBC by the head of hydrogen research at Rystad Energy, Minh Khoi Le, he would say this is something kind of old and also new in a way. The first project that found hydrogen happened to be a while ago, but it just never picked up from there. People, as a matter of fact, never seriously tried to go for the exploration.

An accidental exploration

It is worth noting that the initial discovery of geologic hydrogen happened to take place in 1987 in a small village around 60 kilometers- 37.3 miles from Mali’s capital, Bamako. A failed attempt to go ahead and drill for water by Canada’s Hydroma went on to hit upon an abundance of odorless gas, which was inadvertently found to be pretty highly flammable. The well, thereafter was soon plugged and forgotten.

Almost a couple of decades later, subsequent exploration at the site went on to find out that geologic reservoirs contained almost pure hydrogen gas. The resource, today happens to be used to offer power to the Malian village of Bourakébougou.

In 2023, researchers went on to find what would be the world’s largest geologic hydrogen deposit to date in the eastern Lorraine region of France. This unexpected discovery went on to further boost interest in its clean energy potential.

A research geologist with the Energy Resources Program of the U.S. Geological Survey- USGS, Geoffrey Ellis,  told CNBC that there could as well be some vast amount of naturally occurring hydrogen that would be buried in underground reservoirs across the world.

Based upon the current understanding, Ellis said there is most likely about 5 trillion metric tons of geologic hydrogen within the Earth’s interior, though most of this is likely to be very deep or rather too far offshore to be recovered economically.

Nevertheless, Ellis said that only a specific percent of geologic hydrogen recovery might as well be enough so as to supply all the projected demand for the next 200 years.

He adds that the potential is there, but they have got to do the work. The fact is that more investment is indeed essential so as to accelerate early-stage research as well as development.

The U.S. Department of Energy- US DoE in February 2024, went on to announce a sum of $20 million in order to support 16 projects across the country to advance natural subsurface generation when it comes to hydrogen. It said that the energy resource could very well potentially create zero carbon emissions when burned or even used in a fuel cell.

According to Le from Rystad Energy, natural hydrogen has indeed gone on to create immense excitement at the moment, but when it comes in terms of potential, he thinks it is still a little bit uncertain since none of these projects have actually gone on to start producing or even extracting hydrogen, except for the one in Mali.

He added that there were still many question marks around the entire story pertaining to natural hydrogen; however, there appeared to be some substance when it came to the hype.

He further said that if some of these numbers, which few institutes such as the USGS have, pertaining to the potential volume that one can go ahead and extract, come true, they can actually go on to play quite a massive role.

The fact is that at times, one wants to run before one can walk

However, not everyone seems to be convinced. Some have even gone on to express skepticism in relation to the clean energy potential when it comes to natural hydrogen.

An energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, Ana Maria Jaller-Makarewicz, told CNBC that sometimes one wants to run before one can walk.

The first near-term priority when it comes to hydrogen, as per Jaller-Makarewicz, must be looking for ways to replace so-called grey hydrogen with green hydrogen.

Grey hydrogen, which is produced by way of using natural gas and is the most common form of hydrogen production, goes on to lead to large greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, Carbon Trust has gone on to estimate that less than 1% of the present global hydrogen production happens to be emission-free.

One should not confuse the idea of a solution needs to be found with reality, said Jaller-Makarewicz.

Apart from this, the Hydrogen Science Coalition, which is a group of academics, scientists, and engineers, looks to bring an evidence-based view when it comes to hydrogen’s role as far as the energy transition is concerned. In a recent blog post, it was said that the geologic hydrogen discoveries at present go on to supply the world with less daily energy as compared to a single wind turbine.

What’s more, the coalition opines that there are environmental concerns pertaining to the extraction process and transportation, as well as distribution challenges, which mean that geologic hydrogen is not likely to be found where it is most required the most.

According to the coalition on March 14, 2024, considering findings to date, what they know about geologic hydrogen systems, and the fact that favorable settings go on to appear pretty rare, the odds of ascertaining the geologic hydrogen that can be extracted at the scale of large natural gas developments are pretty slim.