They went in search of fossil fuels. What they discovered could help save the world

By | October 29, 2023


When two scientists went looking for fossil fuels in the subsoil of northeastern France, they didn’t expect to discover something that could intensify the effort to fight the climate crisis.

Jacques Pironon and Phillipe De Donato, both research directors at the National Center for Scientific Research, assessed the quantity of methane present in the subsoils of the Lorraine mining basin using a “world first” specialized probe, capable of to analyze gases dissolved in water. rock formations deep underground.

A few hundred meters lower, the probe detected low concentrations of hydrogen. “It wasn’t a real surprise to us,” Pironon told CNN; it is common to find small quantities near the surface of a borehole. But as the investigation deepened, the focus increased. At 1,100 meters depth it was 14%, at 1,250 meters it was 20%.

It was surprising, Pironon said. This indicated the presence of a large hydrogen tank underneath. They carried out calculations and estimated that the deposit could contain between 6 million and 250 million tonnes of hydrogen.

That could make it one of the largest deposits of “white hydrogen” ever discovered, Pironon said. This discovery helped fuel an already feverish interest in the gas.

White hydrogen – also called “natural”, “golden” or “geological” hydrogen – is produced or occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust and has become a kind of climatic holy grail.

Hydrogen produces only water when burned, making it very attractive as a potential source of clean energy for industries like aviation, shipping and steel that need so much of energy that it is almost impossible to satisfy it through renewable energies such as solar and wind power.

But while hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it generally exists in combination with other molecules. Currently, commercial hydrogen is produced in an energy-intensive process, almost entirely powered by fossil fuels.

A rainbow of colors is used as shorthand for the different types of hydrogen. “Grey” is made from methane and “brown” from coal. “Blue” hydrogen is the same as gray, but pollution produced by global warming is captured before being released into the atmosphere.

The most promising from a climatic point of view is “green” hydrogen, made from renewable energy to split water. Yet production remains small-scale and expensive.

This is why interest in white hydrogen, a potentially abundant and untapped clean energy source, has increased in recent years.

“If you had asked me four years ago what I thought about natural hydrogen, I would have said ‘oh, it doesn’t exist,'” said Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Hydrogen exists, we know it exists,” he said, but scientists thought large accumulations were not possible.

Then he discovered Mali. Arguably, the catalyst for the current interest in white hydrogen can be traced to this West African country.

In 1987, in the village of Bourakébougou, a driller was burned after a water well. exploded unexpectedly as he leaned over the edge smoking a cigarette.

The well was quickly plugged and abandoned until 2011, when it was disconnected by an oil and gas company and reportedly produced gas that was 98% hydrogen. Hydrogen was used to supply the village with electricity and, more than a decade later, it is still being produced.

When a study was published on the well in 2018, it caught the attention of the scientific community, including Ellis. His first reaction was that there must be something wrong with the research, “because we just know it can’t happen.”

Then the pandemic hit and he had some free time to start digging. The more he read, the more he realized, “we just haven’t been looking for it, we haven’t been looking in the right places.”

The recent discoveries are exciting for Ellis, who has worked as a petroleum geochemist since the 1980s. He witnessed the rapid growth of the U.S. shale gas industry, which revolutionized the energy market. “Now,” he said, “here we are in what I think is probably a second revolution. »

White hydrogen is “very promising”, recognizes Isabelle Moretti, scientific researcher at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour and at the University of the Sorbonne and expert in white hydrogen.

“Now the question is no I will no longer talk about the resource…but where to find significant economic reserves,” she told CNN.

Dozens processes generate white hydrogen, but there is still some uncertainty about the extent of natural hydrogen. deposit form.

Geologists tend to focus on “serpentinization,” where water reacts with iron-rich rocks to produce hydrogen, and “radiolysis,” a breakdown of water molecules caused by radiation.

Deposits of white hydrogen have been discovered all over the world, including the United States, Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia, Oman, as well as France and Mali.

Some were discovered by accident, others by searching for clues such as landscape features sometimes called “fairy circles” – shallow elliptical depressions that can leak hydrogen.

Ellis Estimates globally, there could be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen. That would be far more than the 100 million tonnes of hydrogen currently produced per year and the 500 million tonnes expected to be produced annually by 2050, he said.

“Most of this will almost certainly be in very small accumulations or very far offshore, or just too deep to be really profitable to produce,” he said. But if just 1% could be found and produced, it would provide 500 million tonnes of hydrogen for 200 years, he added.

This is a tempting prospect for many startups.

Australia-based Gold Hydrogen is currently drilling in South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. She zeroed in on this location after searching state records and discovering that in the 1920s several boreholes were drilled there containing very high concentrations of hydrogen. Prospectors, only interested in fossil fuels, abandoned them.

“We’re very excited about what we’re seeing,” general manager Neil McDonald said. There is still some testing and drilling to be done, but the company could go into production, possibly in late 2024, he told CNN.

Some startups are seeing eye-popping investments. Koloma, a Denver-based white hydrogen startup, has secured $91 million from investors including investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates – although the company remains tight-lipped about where exactly where it is drilling in the United States and when it will do so. aims for commercialization.

Another Denver-based company, Natural Hydrogen Energy, founded by geochemist Viacheslav Zgonnik, completed exploratory hydrogen drilling in Nebraska in 2019 and plans to build more wells. The world is “very close to the first commercial projects,” Zgonnik told CNN.

“Natural hydrogen is a solution that will allow us to accelerate” climate action, he said.

Natural Hydrogen Energy LLC

Aerial view of Natural Hydrogen Energy’s drilling operations in Kansas.

The challenge for these companies and for scientists will be to translate a hypothetical promise into commercial reality.

“There could be a period of several decades where there will be a lot of trial and error and false starts,” Ellis said. But speed is vital. “If it takes us 200 years to develop the resource, it won’t really do much good.”

But many startups are optimistic. Some predict years, not decades, before commercialization. “We have all the necessary technology we need, with some slight modifications,” Zgonnik said.

Challenges remain. In some countries, regulations are a barrier. Costs must also be calculated. According to calculations based on the Mali well, producing white hydrogen could cost around $1 per kilogram, compared to around $6 per kilogram for green hydrogen. But white hydrogen could quickly become more expensive if large deposits require deeper drilling.

Back in the Lorraine basin, Pironon and De Donato’s next steps are to drill up to 3,000 meters to get a clearer idea of ​​the exact amount of white hydrogen it contains.

There is still a long way to go, but it would be ironic if this region – once one of Western Europe’s main coal producers – became the epicenter of a new white hydrogen industry.

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