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Accidental white hydrogen discovery could revolutionize efforts to combat climate change

[Nov. 22, 2023: JJ Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Aerial view of drilling operations by Natural Hydrogen Energy in Kansas. (CREDIT: Natural Hydrogen Energy LLC)

In a groundbreaking discovery, two scientists conducting research in northeastern France stumbled upon a vast reservoir of hydrogen hidden beneath the Earth's surface.

Jacques Pironon and Phillipe De Donato, both directors of research at France's National Centre of Scientific Research, were initially on a mission to assess methane levels in the Lorraine mining basin using an innovative probe capable of analyzing gases dissolved in deep underground rock formations' water. Little did they know that their expedition would unearth an incredible resource with the potential to revolutionize our efforts to combat the climate crisis.


The Journey to White Hydrogen

As the specialized probe delved deeper into the subsoils, it began registering higher concentrations of hydrogen, initially starting at low levels and steadily increasing. At a depth of 1,100 meters, the hydrogen concentration stood at 14%, and it soared to 20% at 1,250 meters below the surface. This unexpected revelation hinted at the presence of an enormous hydrogen reservoir, estimated to contain between 6 million and 250 million metric tons.

Drilling operations for white hydrogen by Natural Hydrogen Energy in the US Midwest. (CREDIT: Viacheslav Zgonnik)

This discovery marked a significant milestone in the pursuit of "white hydrogen," a form of hydrogen that is naturally present in the Earth's crust. Unlike other types of hydrogen, white hydrogen produces only water when burned, making it an attractive and clean energy source for energy-intensive industries like aviation, shipping, and steel production, which are challenging to power using renewable sources alone.


The Hydrogen Spectrum

Hydrogen, often referred to by different colors, represents various production methods and environmental impacts. "Gray" hydrogen is derived from methane gas, "brown" from coal, and "blue" hydrogen is similar to gray but incorporates pollution capture to mitigate environmental harm. The most promising, from a climate perspective, is "green" hydrogen, produced using renewable energy to split water molecules. However, green hydrogen production remains relatively small-scale and costly.

White hydrogen, on the other hand, has gained considerable attention in recent years due to its potential as an abundant and untapped source of clean-burning energy. This unique form of hydrogen naturally occurs in geological formations and offers a promising solution to our clean energy challenges.


A Game Changer Emerges

Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the US Geological Survey, recalls that a few years ago, the existence of natural hydrogen was considered implausible. However, a discovery in Mali changed everything. In 2011, a water well in the village of Bourakébougou unexpectedly produced gas that was 98% hydrogen, baffling scientists. Subsequent investigations revealed that white hydrogen deposits were more common than previously believed, challenging the conventional wisdom.


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As scientists delved deeper into these deposits, they realized that they had underestimated the potential of white hydrogen. Ellis estimates that there could be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen globally, a staggering amount compared to the current annual production of 100 million tons. While most of these reserves may be in small accumulations or difficult-to-reach locations, even a 1% recovery could provide 500 million tons of hydrogen for two centuries.

This exciting prospect has led to the emergence of numerous startups dedicated to exploring and harnessing white hydrogen. Australia-based Gold Hydrogen, for instance, is actively drilling in South Australia, where historical boreholes hinted at high hydrogen concentrations. Managing director Neil McDonald is optimistic about the company's progress and the potential for early production as soon as 2024.


Koloma, another startup based in Denver, secured an impressive $91 million in investments, including funding from Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Their efforts are shrouded in secrecy, but they are making significant strides toward commercialization. Similarly, Denver-based Natural Hydrogen Energy, founded by geochemist Viacheslav Zgonnik, has completed exploratory hydrogen boreholes in Nebraska and believes the world is on the cusp of the first commercial white hydrogen projects.

While the potential of white hydrogen is undeniably exciting, it poses various challenges that need to be addressed. Regulatory hurdles and cost considerations, for instance, could impact the commercial viability of white hydrogen. The estimated production cost of around $1 per kilogram, based on the Mali well, appears promising compared to $6 per kilogram for green hydrogen. However, deeper drilling may significantly increase production costs, emphasizing the need for technological innovation.

Geologists have identified several processes responsible for white hydrogen formation, including serpentinization and radiolysis. These processes occur throughout the world, with deposits discovered in countries such as the United States, eastern Europe, Russia, Australia, Oman, France, and Mali. The hunt for white hydrogen is intensifying, driven by its potential to revolutionize clean energy production.


White Hydrogen: the sustainable alternative to fossil fuels

White hydrogen has the potential to be a clean and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, as it produces only water vapor when burned. This makes it an attractive option for various applications, including:

Transportation: White hydrogen can be used to power fuel cell vehicles, which offer zero tailpipe emissions and have a longer range than electric vehicles. It is particularly well-suited for heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks and buses, where electrification may be more challenging.

Industrial processes: White hydrogen can be used in industrial processes such as steel and cement production, which are currently major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing fossil fuels with white hydrogen in these industries could significantly reduce their carbon footprint.

Energy storage: White hydrogen can be stored and transported, making it a potential solution for storing energy from renewable sources like solar and wind power. This would allow for the utilization of renewable energy even when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

Power generation: White hydrogen can be used to generate electricity in fuel cells or hydrogen turbines. This could provide a clean and sustainable alternative to power generation from fossil fuels.


As we continue to explore and harness this untapped resource, we may be witnessing the dawn of a new era in clean energy production, with the potential to reshape entire industries and mitigate the looming climate crisis.

For more green news stories check out our Green Impact section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by Tel-Aviv University. Content may be edited for style and length.


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