Natural Hydrogen Has Been Underestimated
ICYMI, AGA published The Hydrogen Rainbow in 2023, which laid out the various types of hydrogen. This piece briefly referenced naturally occurring geologic white hydrogen, also known as natural hydrogen, but dismissed it as not a significant source of hydrogen on the assumption that naturally occurring hydrogen is incredibly rare on Earth. However, new developments in the search for natural hydrogen suggest that this assumption may have dramatically understated the potential of natural hydrogen.
Geologists have now discovered numerous sources of naturally occurring hydrogen in geologies ranging from Mali to Switzerland, France and the United States. More than 50 companies have sprung up with the goal of finding and extracting it. The first natural hydrogen well was discovered by accident in Mali after a local lit a cigarette near an old, capped water well, only to discover that there was pure hydrogen leaking from it. Since then, that hydrogen well has been used to provide energy for the local town of approximately 4,000, for effectively no cost for perpetuity; unlike other geologic fuels, which form on timescales measured in millions of years, natural hydrogen is generated by the mixing of water and iron particles and is renewable on human timescales rather than geological epochs.
The odds of a random water well in rural Mali being the world’s only source of natural hydrogen seemed low. Still, a sample size of one made it impossible to rule out coincidence. After all, why hadn’t more been found elsewhere?
The answer appears to be geology. There are specific geologies in which natural gas or oil are found. It’s not by any means guaranteed that an appropriate geology will have natural gas deposits – however, it’s a safe bet that an inappropriate geology won’t. Recent discoveries have indicated something extremely important: natural hydrogen deposits appear to form in different geologies than natural gas or oil.
So, the answer to why centuries of oil and natural gas searches and extraction failed to turn up any significant amounts of natural hydrogen is simple. Searchers were looking in the wrong place, and had written off the correct geologies as not worth searching in. Now we know what the right geologies look like, and the race for effectively unlimited, dirt-cheap, low-to-no emissions hydrogen is on.
The United States Geological Service (USGS) intends to publish a map of appropriate geologies in the continental United States at some point in 2024. This map is expected to include very large proportions of both coasts and the Midwest as appropriate geologies for hydrogen. The United States is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this new resource thanks to our cutting-edge energy technologies that have already helped to lower U.S. global emissions by 61 percent. If anyone can rapidly extract large amounts of clean natural hydrogen, it’s us.
So, what are the climate implications of these finds? First, a source of virtually inexhaustible low-emissions fuel that is largely compatible with existing systems could potentially be located and extracted, with the best geologies for it concentrated close to major population centers and sources of demand. A mix of at least 15 percent hydrogen could theoretically be blended into existing delivery infrastructure, quickly lowering emissions. Dedicated hydrogen pipelines could supply heavy industry and microgrids first, followed by larger areas, with pure hydrogen. Forget electrifying everything: hydrogen could become the fastest and most affordable way to decarbonize energy use for everything from home heating to power plants and steel manufacturing. The United States has more than 2.3 million miles of natural gas pipelines which could be leveraged to rapidly accelerate decarbonization.
The other potential upside is cost – or, more specifically, the lack thereof. The EIA projects heating with natural gas will remain between half and a third of alternatives like electricity through at least 2050. If natural hydrogen could be extracted at comparable costs, this would drive continued access to affordable energy while massively lowering their carbon footprint.
It’s not a sure bet that large-scale exploitation of natural hydrogen will pan out. However, there is significant reason for optimism, and it is encouraging to see dozens of American companies investing heavily in making this vision a reality.