The green hydrogen revolution has an energy problem. For years, green hydrogen – the industry term for hydrogen produced from renewable and clean energies – has been touted as a silver-bullet solution for hard-to-decarbonize industries. But producing green hydrogen is energy-intensive, making it a pricey endeavor that is often suboptimal in terms of efficient resource use. But yet another kind of hydrogen, white hydrogen, could finally provide the kind of climate panacea that green hydrogen has long promised – and failed – to deliver.
Two scientists at France’s National Centre of Scientific Research recently found an enormous reserve of white hydrogen, which is the industry term for hydrogen that naturally occurs in the layers of the Earth’s crust underground in northeastern France. Ironically, the scientists were searching for fossil fuels when they discovered the deposit, which could contain between 6 million and 250 million metric tons of hydrogen, making it one of the largest of these kinds of deposits ever discovered.
For a long time, scientists have harbored doubts about whether there is actually enough white hydrogen in nature to justify investing in its exploration and extraction, but the discovery in France is the latest in a recent string of discoveries that have given new credibility to developing such plans. Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the United States Geological Survey, estimates that there may be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen lurking under the Earth’s surface, dwarfing the 100 million tons a year of hydrogen that is currently produced (mostly through fossil fuels).
“Most of this is almost certainly going to be in very small accumulations or very far offshore, or just too deep to actually be economic to produce,” Ellis recently told CNN. But if just 1% can be found and extracted, it would provide 500 million tons of hydrogen over the course of 200 years. If he’s right, the pursuit and production of white hydrogen could turn the clean energy industry on its head.
Currently, many scientists are pinning their hopes on green hydrogen to help clean up heavy industries that are extremely difficult to decarbonize. Because hydrogen is combustible and burns at a very high heat like fossil fuels, it could be used to fuel industries such as steelmaking and shipping. But unlike fossil fuels, green hydrogen leaves behind only water vapor when it is burned. This may make it seem like a no-brainer for the green energy transition, but green hydrogen has some serious drawbacks.
Hydrogen is only as green as the energy used to make it, meaning that a lot of clean energy has to be diverted away from more direct energy uses toward making the clean-burning fuel. Plus, the process is expensive. A report released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) earlier this year warns against the “indiscriminate use of hydrogen,” cautioning policy-makers to weigh their priorities carefully and to consider that extensive use of hydrogen “may not be in line with the requirements of a decarbonised world.” The report singles out green hydrogen, arguing that it “requires dedicated renewable energy that could be used for other end uses.” In short, the overuse of green hydrogen could actually be more of a climate problem than a solution.
White hydrogen would avoid all of these issues because it doesn’t need to be made – just extracted. Studies related to a white hydrogen vent discovered in Mali calculated that white hydrogen production would cost around $1 a kilogram, while green hydrogen costs about $6 a kilogram. But the industry is in its infancy, and while a slew of white hydrogen startups are already underway, there will be years of trial and error before any of them could potentially become economically and commercially viable.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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