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The Race for Natural Hydrogen Is Heating Up

When it comes to hydrogen, all eyes have been on the development of the world's green hydrogen potential. This would mean a move away from fossil-fuel-derived hydrogen in support of a green transition. However, there may be a clean alternative right under our noses - white hydrogen. Naturally occurring hydrogen, also known as white hydrogen, was first discovered in Mali in 2012 when a borehole drilled for a well several decades earlier was found to be emitting natural hydrogen. This has given scientists cause for optimism in their exploration for more deposits, which could provide huge renewable energy resources. 

The natural hydrogen found in Mali is thought to have been produced through water and iron-rich mineral reactions under the earth's surface. These stores of white hydrogen are continually renewed, making the prospect of their use highly promising. Following the 2012 discovery, geologists have been exploring ways to extract this white hydrogen for use. Dr Michael Webber, a professor in energy resources at the University of Texas stated, "The earth has many locations where the right conditions co-exist to naturally produce and accumulate hydrogen, which can then be extracted for societal use." He explained, "The good news is that by letting the earth do the work for us, this source of hydrogen is likely much cleaner to produce than current methods of gasifying coal, reforming methane, or electrolysing water."

Governments and energy companies have become increasingly drawn to the hydrogen industry in recent years, as there is great promise for the production of a versatile, low-carbon fuel that can be used for a wide range of applications, from cooking to transport. However, the cost of producing green hydrogen is viewed by many as prohibitively high compared to grey hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas. In addition, many question whether the renewable energy sources being used to power electrolysis in green hydrogen production could be better used directly for clean electricity. 

Since the initial discovery of white hydrogen, more natural hydrogen deposits have been found in Australia, eastern Europe, France, Oman, Spain, the U.S. and Mali, West Africa. However, the most abundant deposits are thought to be in unreachable offshore locations. Viacheslav Zgonnik, a Ukraine-born geochemist, stated of these discoveries, "Even if we could extract 1 percent of what I believe is down there, we could supply all our hydrogen needs for hundreds of years." 

In 2023, scientists at the University of Lorraine were looking for methane in north-east France when they instead discovered a large deposit of natural hydrogen over 1,000 metres underground. This is now thought to be the largest naturally occurring deposit of the gas ever found, with an estimated 250m tonnes of hydrogen. If extracted, that would be enough hydrogen to meet the world's current needs for two years. France's President Macron has since promised public investment in exploring the potential for white hydrogen production. 

In Spain, the exploration company Helios Aragón announced it had found a reservoir containing over a million tonnes of hydrogen. It hopes to begin drilling to extract the hydrogen this year. The company believes it could produce natural hydrogen in the region for just $0.82 a kilo, at around half the current cost of grey hydrogen production and much cheaper than green hydrogen production, which sits at around $5 a kilo. 

Meanwhile, Calgary-based Chapman Hydrogen and Petroleum Engineering is planning to carry out testing and drilling in northern Ontario, Canada this year to search for white hydrogen deposits. The Geological Survey of Canada has been developing a database of potential deposits since late 2022, with mapping expected to take several years. One research scientist from the group stated, "Canada has a lot of potential because of the vastness, because of the type of rocks… More than 50 percent of Canada is covered with the potential source rocks." 

However, there are some concerns about the emerging industry. Scientists worry that there is little data on the impact of hydrogen leaks on the environment. Some suggest that the hydrogen being emitted into the atmosphere could reduce the concentration of molecules that destroy greenhouse gases, which could outweigh the positive impact it is expected to have on the environment. There is a lack of technology to monitor hydrogen leaks at present, which could be worrying considering the lack of understanding of its potential impact. Greater research must be carried out to determine the impact of white hydrogen on the environment and ensure its extraction will do more good than harm. 

Recent white hydrogen discoveries provide great promise for the growth of the industry. Many believe the naturally occurring clean energy source could provide the world with vast amounts of green energy through extraction and transportation operations. However, with little known about the energy source, there are concerns that it may not be as environmentally friendly as some believe. There must, therefore, be greater funding for the research and development of the energy source to ensure that it can be developed sustainably. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More