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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Hydrogen Mining: The New Energy Transition Challenge

  • French researchers have discovered a significant flow of natural hydrogen in an Albanian mine.
  • The discovery has spanked interest in geologic hydrogen as a promising, potentially cleaner alternative to green hydrogen.
  • Despite challenges, interest and investments in geologic hydrogen research are increasing globally.
Hydrogen

Earlier this month, French researchers reported the largest flow of natural hydrogen in a mine in Albania. One of them referred to it as “a Jacuzzi.” New Scientist, which carried a report on the discovery, said the deposit could give scientists a clue about where to look for more natural hydrogen. Because it is urgently needed.

“Most hydrogen is likely inaccessible, but a few per cent recovery would still supply all projected demand — 500mn tonnes a year — for hundreds of years.”

This is according to Geoffrey Ellis, a petroleum geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey and project leader for a study that suggested there may be as much as 5 trillion tons of hydrogen underground.

Hydrogen, an energy carrier and the most abundant element in the universe, is being touted as a key element of the energy transition because when combusted, it only emits water vapor.

Because of that appealing quality, there have been ideas to use it as a replacement for natural gas and use it in home heating, and there is already a small market for hydrogen-fuelled cars—and big plans in Europe and the U.S. to turn green hydrogen into the new normal for all industries that currently use hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons, notably fertilizers and oil refining.

A bigger ambition seems to be turning emission-free hydrogen into a substitute for natural gas in a bid to get rid of all hydrocarbons, regardless of emissions footprint. But that vision has run into real-world troubles, including prohibitive cost of production and substantial wind and/or solar generation capacity that has yet to be built.

The above is true even for capacity leaders such as Spain, which has some major ambitions in the green hydrogen space. Building the necessary generation capacity to fulfill these ambitions will take time and billions in investments, which is a problem because there is a sense of urgency in European politicians’ rhetoric about hydrogen.

Geologic hydrogen, on the other hand, is just sitting there, waiting to get extracted and utilized, it seems. This could be done a lot more cheaply than producing green hydrogen, according to researchers quoted by the FT. It would also be a cleaner way to get hydrogen.

“Geologic hydrogen represents an extraordinary opportunity to produce clean hydrogen in a way that is not only low carbon, but also low land footprint, low water footprint, and low energy consumption,” the chief business officer of a startup backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund.

Some are beginning to talk about a gold rush for geologic hydrogen, highlighting the challenges in turning green hydrogen into a viable alternative for natural gas—and the sort of hydrogen derived from it. Yet, it is a new area of research, and conclusive proof is yet to be found.

The problem with those potential trillions of tons of hydrogen lying beneath the surface of the Earth is the word potential. As New Scientist noted in its report on the Albanian mine, evidence of actual deposits is sparse, and “Most claims about vast hydrogen deposits beneath the surface rely on extrapolation, rather than direct measurements.”

The findings researchers made in that Albanian mine support a cautious view on this new area of study. The deposit they discovered leaked hydrogen at a rate of 11 tons per year. That’s a tiny amount, and yet it is the largest flow of hydrogen detected from a single source in the world. Based on that flow, the researchers estimated that the deposit in the mine contained between 5,000 and 50,000 tons of hydrogen.

This is a tiny amount compared to what transition planners envisage and even compared to what the world consumes in terms of hydrogen currently. Last year, demand for hydrogen rose by 3% to 95 million tons, according to the International Energy Agency. If the energy carrier lives up to the promise, this demand will increase substantially in the coming decades.

Even the prospect of such a demand increase right now is fueling a lot of interest in the hydrogen space. This interest is likely to intensify further in the context of the hopes governments pin on hydrogen.

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The U.S. Department of Energy, for instance, recently allocated $20 million in financial support for geologic hydrogen research in eight states. In Europe, a potentially huge discovery dwarfing the one in Albania was publicized last year, but there has been little news about it since then.

Geologic hydrogen could be the new green hydrogen in terms of hype. Whether it will live up to it is yet to be established. And it might take a while.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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