Natural hydrogen extraction from the soil may be a key element of the energy transition

Elizabeth Smith

A good part of the scientific community is convinced that hydrogen will have to become one of the key elements of the energy transition needed to overcome the climate crisis.

The reason is simple. On paper, hydrogen is the perfect fuel. Thus making it possible to leave behind fossil fuels such as gas and gasoline and replace them with something that “burns” without producing pollution.

In fact, as is well known, the only waste produced by the combustion of this substance is water vapor.

Here then, hydrogen can be used to power automobiles and a host of other uses. This is why it may be excellent news that was recently published in Science. An investigation has in fact hypothesized a new way to secure this substance. Namely, the extraction of natural hydrogen from the ground.

How hydrogen is produced

To understand how important the possibility of making use of the extraction of natural hydrogen from the ground might be, it is good to quickly review what the actual ways of hydrogen production are.

At present, almost all of the hydrogen produced worldwide is far from sustainable. It is in fact hydrogen produced from the use of fossil fuels, which nullifies the use of this substance from an environmental point of view at the outset.

Only a very small percentage is so-called green, green hydrogen, obtained by electrolysis using renewable energy, without harmful emissions.

This explains why the hypothesis of extracting hydrogen from the ground that is already “ready” for use is absolutely fascinating.

Extracting natural hydrogen from the ground: why only now

But why, in a world ravaged by climate change caused mainly by the use of fossil fuels, has natural hydrogen extraction from the ground not been thought of sooner?

Simple: until not so long ago, people thought that underground supplies of natural hydrogen were so rare for their exploitation. This ignorance is explained by the nature of exploration for oil and gas. Which are sought in soils suitable for fossil fuel formation. But not for hydrogen formation.

It is therefore also worth noting that only a few years ago has it begun to be understood how and why hydrogen forms underground.

Read also: Hydrogen could fuel the ships of the future as a green alternative

How natural hydrogen is formed underground

The hypothesis of being able to exploit the extraction of natural hydrogen from underground began to form in 2012. When a deposit of this 98 percent pure substance was discovered in Mali. It is a huge deposit, with an extension of more than 8 kilometers.

And it may be just one of many. How do scientists explain the formation of natural hydrogen? The prevailing theory states that its production happens by contact between water and peculiar minerals, particularly rich in iron, such as olivine.

In such cases there would be a geological process that transforms the latter mineral into serpentine, through a reaction that on the one hand sequesters the oxygen present. And, on the other hand releases hydrogen into the water.

Here then is where the gas release happens. Then, dispersed into the atmosphere or – in the case of the presence of suitable sediments – forming underground deposits.

Prospects for the use of natural hydrogen

These discoveries open up particularly tantalizing scenarios. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, stated that there is a very good 98 percent chance that with the natural hydrogen found in underground deposits our planet could cover at least 50 percent of its energy needs within the next century.

A combination of renewable energies such as wind, photovoltaics, geothermal and natural hydrogen could thus allow us to permanently zero out our environmental impact.

Read also: Renewables, why is wind power the energy of the future

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