It has been known for at least a decade that the earth has large reservoirs of natural hydrogen. It’s a good source of carbon-free energy that very few people knew about until this year.
Prospectors have reported significant finds in France and South Australia, and others are seeking natural (geologic) hydrogen in Morocco, Mozambique, South Africa, Togo, and the USA.
Natural hydrogen could be an important stepping stone toward fully renewable petrol, diesel, and jet fuel. A USGS modelling study suggests underground reservoirs hold trillions of tonnes of hydrogen. USGS geologist Geoffrey Ellis told the BBC that around 100 billion tonnes would be exploitable using natural gas production technology. 100 billion tonnes is enough to produce more than 1.6 trillion barrels of CO2-neutral synthetic crude oil: More than 50 year’s supply at the current consumption rate.
Production cost is estimated to be around one US dollar per kilogram. At that price, synthetic crude made with natural hydrogen and CO2 captured from the atmosphere would cost about the same as synthetic crude made from purpose-grown biomass such as forestry. It would be cheaper than solar crude oil but more expensive than fossil crude oil. Natural hydrogen can also be used as fuel in its own right, or it can be made into electricity.
The story of natural hydrogen is a reminder never to say never. We have been led to believe that natural hydrogen cannot exist. Hydrogen is highly reactive. That is an established fact, which led to the belief that any hydrogen atoms or molecules in the earth’s environment would quickly react with other substances, forming water, hydrides, hydrocarbons and other compounds. Unattached hydrogen would not be found anywhere on earth. Natural hydrogen prospectors have busted the myth.
Science reporter Eric Hand traces the natural hydrogen story to a 2012 project in Mali. A well near the village of Bourakébougou was known to produce flammable gas. Testing showed that gas from the well is 98% hydrogen. Hydrogen from the well was used to power a 30 kilowatt generator, supplying Bourakébougou with electricity for the first time.
Natural hydrogen may compensate for international procrastination. Under the 2015 Paris Climate Accords the world agreed to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases…” This is possible only if consumption of fossil hydrocarbon fuels is phased out. Eight years on, climate diplomats at the 28th “Conference of the Parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2023 were still avoiding the issue. Credit where it’s due, they did agree to transition away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately they are experts at dancing on pin-heads. What looks to most of us like an agreement to do something, usually turns out to be another opportunity for diplomats to argue about the meaning of last year’s agreement. This costs shiploads and further delays the fossil fuel phase-out. The longer climate diplomats delay, the more abrupt the phase-out will need to be.
Commercialising natural hydrogen could soften the impact of the fossil-fuel phase-out. Instead of switching directly to fully-renewable crude oil, the world gets several decades worth of a more affordable, albeit non-renewable, source of energy
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