Hydrogen only produces heat and water when burned, making it an attractive alternative to fossil fuels.
However, the majority of hydrogen production currently relies on gas or coal, processes that emit a significant amount of CO2. “Green” hydrogen, produced using renewable energy, offers a promising but expensive alternative. So is there a way to eliminate these production processes entirely?
Enter white hydrogen
Earth holds vast reserves of natural hydrogen, known as “white” hydrogen, that can be extracted from the ground. Recent discoveries have generated excitement about the potential for white hydrogen to become a clean, affordable, and renewable energy source.
Hydrogen is abundant in everything from water to plants. However, significant quantities of hydrogen gas in its pure form were not believed to exist within the earth until a chance finding in Mali in 2012.
Since 2012, geologists have since been experimenting with extracting natural hydrogen from beneath the earth’s surface, where it forms through water-mineral reactions.
According to Euronews, natural or white hydrogen is continuously replenished. This contrasts sharply with fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form.
The commercial viability of white hydrogen is still unclear. However, initial research is yielding some encouraging findings.
Due to its limited processing requirements, white hydrogen costs just $0.54 US per kilogram. This makes it only a fraction of the cost of green hydrogen, which presently costs about $5.35 per kilogram.
White hydrogen could be especially important in decarbonizing the steel, agriculture, aerospace, and freight sectors. In all of these industries, using batteries for energy is impractical.
White hydrogen discoveries
Although hydrogen reserves are primarily located in offshore regions that are difficult to access, onshore deposits have been identified in Australia, France, the US, and other nations.
In the Lorraine region of France, a substantial reservoir of natural hydrogen was unexpectedly discovered in May. Government researchers made the discovery while conducting methane level tests in the soil.
Further drilling is underway to determine the exact quantity of hydrogen present. However, preliminary estimates by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) suggest it could be approximately 46 million tons. This is about half of the world’s current annual hydrogen production.
The private sector is diligently searching for white hydrogen too. A group of five investors (including Bill Gates) recently gave $90 million in seed funding to Koloma. Koloma is currently drilling for white hydrogen in the Midwestern United States.
According to the US Geological Survey, a small fraction of the world’s white hydrogen would be enough to power the planet for centuries.
With all of these benefits, white hydrogen still suffers some major limitations.
Researchers are concerned about hydrogen leaks and their potential environmental impact. If hydrogen escapes into the atmosphere, it can increase methane concentrations. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has 28 times more warming potential than CO2.
Transporting hydrogen also presents challenges. Transforming existing gas pipelines into hydrogen pipelines isn’t feasible. This is because hydrogen can cause corrosion and cracks in metal pipes.
Lastly, hydrogen is significantly more explosive than natural gas, leading to safety concerns.
Whether or not white hydrogen becomes a major tool in the fight against climate change will depend on the outcomes of ongoing studies. We’ll need to stay tuned to see what researchers discover.
Image Source: Voice of Europe