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Geologists Are Predicting a Natural Hydrogen “Gold Rush”

  • A US Geological Survey study reveals the Earth holds over 5 trillion tons of geologic hydrogen, challenging previous assumptions about its accessibility.
  • Geologists report finding hydrogen reserves in various locations, with potential for significant production, including in Albania and Spain.
  • "Gold hydrogen," extracted from natural reserves, is touted as a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to traditional hydrogen production methods, sparking interest from energy firms and investors worldwide.
Earth

Speaking this weekend at a Denver meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, geologists heralded a coming, game-changing surge in mankind's harvesting of a resource long thought impractical to collect: naturally-occurring or "geologic hydrogen." 

The scientists provided a first look at the findings of an as-yet-unpublished study performed by the US Geological Survey (USGS). The key takeaway: naturally-occurring hydrogen is far more abundant near the Earth's surface than previously known. Researchers say the planet holds upwards of 5 trillion tons of hydrogen, trapped in underground pockets. 

“Most hydrogen is likely inaccessible, but a few percent recovery would still supply all projected demand — 500 million tons a year — for hundreds of years,” said Geoffrey Ellis, a USGS research geologist, as reported by the Financial Times. The supply has gone largely unnoticed due to scientists' earlier assumptions about how natural hydrogen is formed and how it's degraded. "We haven’t looked for hydrogen resources in the right places with the right tools,” said Ellis. 

Better-equipped and more enlightened, geologists are discovering hydrogen reserves in many places, including a chromite mine in Albania from which 200 tons are flowing every year.  

A depiction of hydrogen gas trapped beneath cap rock in the Pyrenees foothills (via Helios Aragon) 

Today, hydrogen used as a fuel or industrial material is primarily produced by chemically altering gas principally composed of methane. When resulting carbon emissions are captured, the product is called "blue hydrogen." When they're not, it's called "grey hydrogen." In 2022, grey hydrogen accounted for 92% of the hydrogen market by value. "Green hydrogen," which results when water molecules are split via electrolysis in a process powered by renewable energy, is still marginal.

Naturally occurring geologic hydrogen is called "gold hydrogen," and the geologists say it has a better ecological-impact profile than blue or even green hydrogen: Electrolysis requires a large amount of electricity. 

“A gold rush for gold hydrogen is coming,” said Mengli Zhang, an assistant professor at the well-regarded Colorado School of Mines. Among the firms focused on the opportunity are Natural Hydrogen Energy LLC, which drilled America's first exploratory well, in Nebraska, and Koloma, whose investors include Bill Gates Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Both firms are headquartered in Denver. Helios Aragon is pioneering gold hydrogen production in Europe. The Aragon, Spain company has permits spanning more than 200,000 acres in the northern part of the country.   

“Geologic hydrogen represents an extraordinary opportunity to produce clean hydrogen in a way that is not only low carbon, but also low land footprint, low water footprint and low energy consumption,”  Koloma’s chief business officer, Paul Harraka, told the Times

It all sounds great, but we'll be watching the pilot production runs in Europe and elsewhere to see if the reality matches the geologists' optimism. 

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