In 1987, African villagers digging a water well struck a pocket of gas about 330 feet down. The gas streamed out, showing blue in sunlight and gold at night. When a villager looked down the hole while smoking a cigarette, the plume exploded.
The hole was sealed and sat for 20 years until an oil company acquired rights to explore in the region and heard about the hole. The company tested it and found the plume of gas was 98-percent pure hydrogen.
The discovery lent support to a theory held by a small group of scientists: planet Earth holds vast stores of hydrogen, just as it holds subterranean fields of oil and gas.
Hydrogen is having a moment as a clean, green alternative to oil and gas but humans make it mostly by pulling it from methane, which is neither clean nor green.
The world is seeking alternative ways to capture hydrogen. So what if it’s lying under the ground for the taking?
The conjecture is that interactions between iron-rich rocks and water deep underground continuously generate hydrogen – perhaps enough to supply this carbon-free fuel for thousands of years, according to a 2022 U.S. Geological Survey report.
Humanity has sunk wells for water, gas, oil, and other reasons all over the world for centuries. So why haven’t these hidden troves of hydrogen been found?
In some cases, they have: scientists have reported gas leaks of 30-percent hydrogen, or even richer, leaking from mineshafts and rock formations around the world. Oil and gas drillers never found it because they never checked for hydrogen in the gasses coming out of their boreholes.
One place to look: the hundreds of thousands of circular depressions in lands around the world called fairy circles or witch rings—often surrounded by trees or thick vegetation but having little themselves.
When a team led by European chemist Viacheslav Zgonnik studied several of these “Carolina bays” along the U.S. east coast, the depressions were found to be leaking hydrogen. The deeper the team drilled its test holes, the greater the concentration of hydrogen became.
The hydrogen gradually dissolves rocks, leading the ground surface to sink, Zgonnik theorizes.
Scores of new exploration companies have been set up to explore for these potential pools of hydrogen.
Zgonnik’s group is targeting a North American volcanic rift stretching from Kansas to Minnesota, where iron-rich rock is close to the surface. His Natural Hydrogen Energy company has drilled a test hole in Nebraska.
The company hasn’t disclosed results but they apparently were good enough to draw an investment partner.
Southern Australia is another hotspot, with one publicly-traded startup raising $20 million to drill a test well. A Spanish entrepreneur will sink a shaft in the Pyrenees Mountains next year.
These new hydrogen explorers think their production costs could be as little as a tenth that of harvesting hydrogen from water.
Meanwhile, the African field first punctured in 1987 now sports 30 wells drawing hydrogen from a pool estimated to be 60 billion cubic meters.
However, if the theory of the hydrogen’s origin is correct, water and rocks down below should continue to interact and continuously make more into the indefinite future, making hydrogen a fuel source that the Earth renews continuously.
TRENDPOST: Whether commercially practical pools of hydrogen exist and can be harvested is an open question. If they can, the gigantic investment needed to build a hydrogen production, transport, storage, and distribution infrastructure could be justified.
If all that were to happen, hydrogen could eventually rival or potentially surpass solar power as the world’s premier renewable energy resource.
“I believe that hydrogen has the potential to replace all fossil fuels,” Zgonnik told Science magazine.
OnTrendpreneurs®, take note.