The Hydrogen Gold Rush is On

  • Adam Kay
  • The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently soft launched an upcoming report on naturally occurring hydrogen, also known as gold hydrogen. The potential implications of the report for America’s energy system and the future of decarbonization are tremendous. 

    Hydrogen burns clean. The only products of hydrogen combustion are water, oxygen, and energy, none of which represent any significant environmental issue. Gold hydrogen occurs naturally in areas where water mixes with iron-rich rocks and could theoretically be drilled for and extracted like natural gas. It represents a potential source of clean energy that can be stored and transported to be used when and where it is required. The USGS estimates that we have quite a bit of it, if we can get to it. 

    While the full contents of the report remain a mystery until publication, we now know that the report estimates that as much as 5 trillion metric tons of gold hydrogen. How much is 5 trillion metric tons of hydrogen? Well, in 2023 the world used about 105 million metric tons of hydrogen. If we could access all the gold hydrogen the USGS estimates to exist, we would have enough for between 47,000 and 48,000 years at current consumption levels. Much of that hydrogen is probably is not easily accessible or financially viable with our current technologies, but even if a small percentage—2%–was accessible, that would mean that we would “only” have enough for the next thousand years – pretty remarkable. And there is no doubt that clean hydrogen from other sources could help stretch this supply out as necessary. 

    The forthcoming report will detail where in the United States this hydrogen is likely to be found. In other words, what’s happened so far is the announcement of a race to develop gold hydrogen resources. We’re still waiting for the USGS to fire the starting gun by releasing the full report. However, many companies and government agencies are forging ahead in preparation. 

    Many people have heard of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For those who aren’t familiar, DARPA deserves significant credit for the invention of the Internet, GPS, flat-screen displays, stealth aircraft, drones, and brain-computer interfaces, along with plenty of other projects we’ll doubtless learn about when their government classification expires in another fifty years. Fewer people know that DARPA has civilian equivalents. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-energy (ARPA-E) is based at the U.S. Department of Energy. ARPA-E is tasked with promoting and funding the research of advanced energy technologies. They have identified gold hydrogen as one such potentially transformative technology and are allocating significant resources to advance it. 

    ARPA-E is investing $20 million in companies that are developing gold hydrogen technologies. According to ARPA-E, these efforts are expected to result in low-carbon hydrogen that costs potentially less than $1 per kilogram. When factoring in the $3/kilogram tax incentive for low carbon offered by the Inflation Reduction Act, the potential economic implications of a low-cost, low carbon fuel quickly become apparent. 

    New and different techniques will likely be required to profitably extract gold hydrogen. That is unlikely to be an insurmountable obstacle. Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom was that extracting natural gas from shale formations was impossible. American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit found a way to make it possible, turning the United States into the world’s largest producer of natural gas and oil. There is every reason to hope that the same will hold true for gold hydrogen.  

    With the Midwest and the Great Plains estimated to be some of the most promising locales for gold hydrogen, we may soon see the economy of much of the country boosted by a new source of reliable energy. The ability to blend hydrogen into the fuel mix for existing infrastructure, with greater amounts possible as infrastructure is upgraded, promises to keep the natural gas system as one of the foremost tools available for decarbonization.