Two scientists went looking for fossil fuels underground in northeastern France, but they didn’t expect to discover something that could boost efforts to combat the climate crisis.
Jacques Pironon and Phillipe De Donato, both research directors at the National Center for Scientific Research, assessed the quantity of methane in the subsoils of the Lorraine mining basin using a specialized probe “a first in the world”, capable of analyzing dissolved gases. in the water of underground rock formations.
A few hundred meters lower, the probe detected low concentrations of hydrogen. “It wasn’t really a surprise to us,” Pironon said. CNN.
It is common to find small amounts near the surface of a borehole, but as the investigation deepened, the concentration increased. At 1,100 meters depth it was 14%, at 1,250 meters it was 20%.
This was surprising, Pironon said, because it indicated the presence of a large hydrogen tank underneath.
They carried out calculations and estimated that the deposit could contain between 6 million and 250 million tonnes of hydrogen.
That could make it one of the largest deposits of “white hydrogen” ever discovered, Pironon said. This discovery helped fuel an already feverish interest in the gas.
White hydrogen – also called “natural”, “gold” or “geological” hydrogen – is produced or naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust and has become a kind of climatic holy grail.
Hydrogen only produces water when burned, making it very attractive as a potential source of clean energy for industries such as aviation, shipping and steel, which require so much of energy that it is almost impossible to meet it with renewable energies such as solar and wind power. .
But although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, it usually exists in combination with other molecules. Currently, commercial hydrogen is produced in an energy-intensive process, almost entirely powered by fossil fuels.
A rainbow of colors is used as shorthand for the different types of hydrogen. “Grey” is made from methane and “brown” from coal. “Blue” hydrogen is identical to gray hydrogen, but the pollution produced by global warming is captured before being released into the atmosphere.
The most promising from a climatic point of view is “green” hydrogen, produced from renewable energies to split water. However, production remains artisanal and expensive.
This is why interest in white hydrogen, a potentially abundant and untapped clean energy source, has increased in recent years.
“We didn’t look in the right places.”
“If you had asked me four years ago what I thought about natural hydrogen, I would have said ‘oh, it doesn’t exist,'” said Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Hydrogen exists, we know it exists,” he said, but scientists thought large accumulations were not possible.
Then he discovered Mali. The catalyst for the current interest in white hydrogen can arguably be attributed to this West African country.
In 1987, in the village of Bourakébougou, a driller was burned after a water well unexpectedly exploded while he was leaning over the edge while smoking a cigarette.
The well was quickly plugged and abandoned until 2011, when it was disconnected by an oil and gas company and reportedly produced gas containing 98% hydrogen.
Hydrogen was used to supply the village and, more than a decade later, it is still in production.
When a study of the well was published in 2018, it attracted the attention of the scientific community, including Ellis. His first reaction was that there must be something wrong with the research, “because we know that can’t happen.”
Then the pandemic hit and he had some free time to start digging. The more he read, the more he realized that “we just weren’t looking for it, we weren’t looking in the right places.”
The recent discoveries are exciting for Ellis, who has worked as a petroleum geochemist since the 1980s. He witnessed the rapid growth of the U.S. shale gas industry, which revolutionized the energy market.
“Now,” he said, “here we are in what I consider to be probably a second revolution. »
White hydrogen is “very promising”, agrees Isabelle Moretti, scientific researcher at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour and at the University of the Sorbonne and expert on the subject.
“Now the question is no longer what resource… but where to find large economic reserves,” she said. CNN.
Dozens of processes generate white hydrogen, but some uncertainty remains about whether large natural deposits form.
Geologists tend to focus on “serpentinization,” where water reacts with iron-rich rocks to produce hydrogen, and “radiolysis,” a breakdown of water molecules caused by radiation.
Deposits of white hydrogen have been discovered all over the world, including the United States, Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia, Oman, as well as France and Mali.
Some were discovered by accident, others by searching for clues, such as landscape features sometimes called “fairy circles” – shallow elliptical depressions that can release hydrogen.
Ellis estimates there could be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen globally. That would be far more than the 100 million tonnes of hydrogen currently produced per year and the 500 million tonnes expected to be produced annually by 2050, he said.
“Most of this will almost certainly occur in accumulations that are too small or too far offshore, or simply too deep to be really profitable to produce,” he said.
But if just 1% could be found and produced, it would provide 500 million tonnes of hydrogen over 200 years, he added.
This is a tempting prospect for a number of startups.
Australia-based Gold Hydrogen is currently drilling on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. He zeroed in on this location after digging through state records and discovering that in the 1920s several boreholes were drilled there containing very high concentrations of hydrogen.
Miners, interested only in fossil fuels, have abandoned them.
“We’re really excited about what we’re seeing,” general manager Neil McDonald said. There is still some testing and drilling to be done, but the company could go into production sooner, perhaps in late 2024, he said. CNN.
Some startups are seeing surprising investments. Koloma, a Denver-based white hydrogen startup, has secured $91 million from investors including investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates, although the company remains tight-lipped about exactly where the United States where it drills and when it targets marketing.
Another Denver-based company, Natural Hydrogen Energy, founded by geochemist Viacheslav Zgonnik, completed a hydrogen exploration well in Nebraska in 2019 and plans to create additional wells. The world is “very close to the first commercial projects,” Zgonnik said CNN.
“Natural hydrogen is a solution that will allow us to accelerate” climate action, he said.
The challenge for these companies and scientists will be to translate hypothetical promises into commercial reality.
“There could be a period of several decades where there will be a lot of trial and error and false starts,” Ellis said. But speed is vital. “If it takes us 200 years to develop the resource, it won’t be of much use. »
But many startups are optimistic. Some predict years, not decades, before commercialization. “We have all the technology we need, with a few small modifications,” Zgonnik said.
Challenges remain. In some countries, regulations are a barrier. Costs must also be calculated. According to calculations based on the Malian well, producing white hydrogen could cost around $1 per kilogram, compared to around $6 per kilogram for green hydrogen.
But white hydrogen could quickly become more expensive if large deposits require deeper drilling.
Back in the Lorraine basin, Pironon and De Donato’s next steps are to drill up to 3,000 meters to get a clearer idea of the exact amount of white hydrogen it contains.
There is still a long way to go, but it would be ironic if this region – once one of Western Europe’s main coal producers – became the epicenter of a new white hydrogen industry.