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Is natural hydrogen the next black swan event?

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By Leon Stille

· 4 min read

Hydrogen in the transition 

It is very likely that hydrogen will place a significant role in our future energy system. Most reputable organizations like the IEA and IPCC see this happening in the next coming years. Certain industries, such as chemicals, steel, cement and heavy transport, are well-positioned to be powered by hydrogen at some point, benefiting from the flexibility and molecular properties of hydrogen and avoiding adaptation of their processes to a significant extent. 

In terms of (potential) use cases of hydrogen, we are mostly covered and it is a matter of scale-up and technology development. However, the supply side remains a bit more of a conundrum. This is mostly because we would like to have fully decarbonized hydrogen in the form of green hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources. Since hydrogen production from renewable electricity will inevitably lead to high energy losses, significant uptake of hydrogen will also lead to a much larger increase of installed renewables. That in itself is great but all kinds of constraints on space, suitability, grid extension and public support will possibly lead to competition with direct electrification and not increase the availability of green hydrogen. 

Fast uptake through natural hydrogen

It is important for the emerging hydrogen economy to have quick uptake and scale up to fully tap the potential. We need to have a supply of decarbonized hydrogen available quickly and at a good price. Now it turns out we may have that available in the form of naturally occurring hydrogen which is located right under our feet! 

This so-called white and gold hydrogen is being (re)discovered at lightning speed. These sources are not new at all and have been known for hundreds of years. In fact, some oil and gas wells were even abandoned because they contained up to 80% hydrogen, for example in Western Australia. Similarly, the first oil wells in California were not dug for oil but for water. 

What is natural hydrogen?

However, most scientists expected these to be anomalies as hydrogen is a very small molecule that will quickly disperse in the Earth's crust and thus not be able to concentrate in certain strata in the same way as oil and gas. This is partly right only when looking at the sedimentary layers often associated with oil and gas. But when considering other geological formations, it seems hydrogen can very well be trapped and concentrated to form natural wells. Most of this hydrogen is produced naturally by a process called serpentinization, whereby minerals act as a catalyzer in combination with water and a high temperature to form natural hydrogen. Radiolysis is another process whereby the Earth's radioactive decay is producing hydrogen from deep water reservoirs. 

Potentially vast reserves 

More and more evidence is emerging that there are large reservoirs of hydrogen in our Earth's crust in places like the US, Turkey, Western Australia and Africa (Mali, in particular), even in sufficiently high concentrations for it to be mined and purified. Interestingly, in a study done by Geoffrey Ellis and his colleagues in the US geological survey, it is estimated there may well be trillions of tons of hydrogen in the crust. They expect that natural processes replenish this hydrogen at a much larger rate than the 90 million tons of hydrogen we are currently producing. But the main questions would be regarding what part of this we can economically mine and in what concentrations. Nevertheless, this amount seems to be staggering.

Disruptive white hydrogen? 

Personally, I think this can be a game-changer. If we indeed have vast reserves of recoverable natural hydrogen that is also being replenished by the Earth's crust, this renewable resource could be enough to power almost everything. Combined with solar, wind and geothermal, natural hydrogen can be the backbone of our energy transition. It is also convenient that the extraction process is similar to natural gas extraction, something we have become very good at over the years. Therefore, I expect similar costs for extracting as those for natural gas, which makes natural hydrogen one of the cheapest hydrogen sources. All in all, hydrogen has high potential for the energy transition and I advise everybody to keep a close watch on the development in this field.  

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Leon Stille is managing director of New Energy Institute. New Energy Institute is focused on expert advice, education, and innovation, consulting for companies like BCG, Shell, TNO, Berq RNG and several investment firms. He is also key lecturer for renewable gas and hydrogen for New Energy Business School, expert speaker on energy transition topics for several universities (MBA energy transition of the University of Groningen and University of Rotterdam) and often speaks and moderates at key industrial conferences and events. He also holds several advisory positions at the European Biogas Association, Hydrogen Europe and committee member sustainability of the international gas union. Leon holds 3 patents on renewable gas purification and conversion.

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