Geologists announce the beginning of a ‘Gold Rush’ for hydrogen energy

Scientists are predicting the beginning of a “golden age” in energy for a resource that was previously overlooked — naturally occurring hydrogen.

According to a study unpublished by the US Geological Survey, underground reservoirs around the world contain up to 5tn tonnes hydrogen.

Geoffrey Ellis, the project leader, said that he was looking forward to the results of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, which took place in Denver. “Most of the hydrogen is probably inaccessible but a few percent recovery would still be able to supply all the projected demand – 500mn tonnes per year – for hundreds of decades.”

The main way to meet the demand for hydrogen, both as a fuel for industry and as a raw material for fertilizer production, is by reforming methane gas, also known as “blue hydrogen” when carbon emissions are captured, or as “grey hydrogen” when not.

The “green hydrogen” produced by electrolysing water using renewable energy sources is a smaller amount.

Mengli Zhao of Colorado School of Mines says that tapping natural hydrogen, also known as geologic hydrogen or gold hydrogen, would be cleaner and less expensive than blue or green hydrogen. She told the conference that “a gold rush is coming for gold hydrogen.”

Investors are beginning to show interest in the prospect. Koloma , a US startup , raised $91mn in funding last year. This included funds such as Bill Gates Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Paul Harraka is the chief business officer at Koloma. He said: “Geologic Hydrogen represents an exceptional opportunity to produce clean, hydrogen that has a low carbon footprint, a low water footprint, and low energy consumption.”

Natural Hydrogen Energy, a US-based company, has drilled a well for exploratory purposes in Nebraska. Viacheslav Zgonnik said that it will take two years for commercial production to be ramped up. “We’re doing everything possible to accelerate the process.”

Scientists believed that there was little pure hydrogen near the Earth’s surface, as it would either be consumed by microbes underground or destroyed through geochemical processes.

Alexis Templeton, of the University of Colorado Boulder, spoke at the AAAS Conference. She said that geologists believe that hydrogen is produced in large amounts when certain iron-rich mineral reacts with water.

Hydrogen is produced in different geological conditions than oil and gas. Ellis said, “We haven’t searched for hydrogen resources with the correct tools in the right locations.”

Scientists are finding hydrogen deposits in many parts of the world. Researchers reported this month that the Bulqize Chrmite Mine in Albania produces more than 200 tonnes per year of hydrogen.

In Mali, the village of Bourakebougou is often referred to as the birthplace for natural hydrogen extraction. Since 2012, villagers have received their first supply of electricity after a borehole in the village produced almost pure hydrogen.

Ellis said that the Bourakebougou well could have sparked a rush of hydrogen comparable to the petroleum industry’s birth in 1859 when Edwin Drake drilled a pipe deep into the ground and found oil at Titusville Pennsylvania.