Hydrogen, a growing factor in the global green-energy transition, is usually distilled industrially from natural gas. Now the U.S. energy department is going to test a controversial theory that we can suck hydrogen out of the ground the way we do oil and gas.
Hydrogen isn’t as energy-dense as natural gas and needs a lot of space to store useful amounts. However, it’s seen as a good prospect for fueling industrial processes such as steelmaking and also as a long-haul transport fuel.
Geologic hydrogen was long thought to be virtually nonexistent because it can be devoured by underground microbes and easily react with other substances to become part of another substance.
That changed when a field of natural hydrogen was discovered under a village in the African nation of Mali.
While the U.S. Geological Survey and private companies hunt for hydrogen fields, the energy department is taking the next step: testing ways to ignite a process called “serpentinization,” which happens when water contacts rocks rich in iron at the high temperatures and pressures found deep in the Earth.
That process has been shown to release hydrogen trapped in hard rocks.
The goal: instead of waiting for hydrogen to seep out, making it spew like oil from a gusher.
Early plans call for testing ways to catalyze hydrogen’s release using catalysts including olivine and magnetite and to enlist microbes to free the gas.
Hydrogen’s new buzz has finally persuaded commercial ventures to pay attention.
Start-up Koloma has announced it’s amassed $91 million in venture capital to develop natural hydrogen deposits, including money from Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures. BP and Chevron are part of a $5-million venture out of the Colorado School of Mines.
Templeton Energy has won grant funding to explore ways to coax hydrogen out of rocks at lower temperatures and pressures, which would make more deposits commercially viable, including one in Oman.
TRENDPOST: Commercially practical underground hydrogen deposits are far fewer in number than oil or gas fields. However, the drilling equipment exists so companies are tempted to risk the costs of exploration.
In an “all of the above” energy future, hydrogen will find its niche. That niche will be big enough to support a profitable industry that produces geologic hydrogen – if more than a few fields are found to exist.