As one of the basic building blocks that make up much of the planet we live on, hydrogen exists in the very air we breathe. And yet, thanks to its volatile nature, mankind’s efforts to harness its potential have yielded mixed results (see: the Hindenburg disaster). But as this Bold story shows, hydrogen can be used as a source of energy for cars, and in recent years, there have been even more efforts to further take advantage of the element. This has occurred primarily through its actual production using water as an input; however, the cost and yield of these efforts hardly made it a game-changer when it came to energy.
This may have now changed, as scientists have recently discovered a potentially massive clean energy power source beneath the ground. Located underneath coal mines in Lorraine, France, this natural hydrogen reservoir may contain more than double what is produced annually. If that’s the case, and it can be readily harvested, then a major paradigm shift will occur. That’s why this most recent find has many energy researchers cautiously excited.
“If they do verify this discovery, then it is very significant and would have a big impact on society.” – Geoffrey Ellis, Geochemist at the U.S. Geological Survey
The Recent Discovery of Natural Hydrogen in France
Lorraine, France, sits on the border near Germany, and it has been an energy resource for decades. However, prior to the 1970s, the use of hydrogen as an energy source had not been considered. Instead, the region was home to many coal mines at that time. These were subsequently abandoned when nuclear power become more of a priority. The only use of these mines in recent years had been as a source methane gas. Methane could be harvested and turned into energy resources. The recent exploration of these regions in Lorraine sought to find precisely this. But instead, a much more impressive find involving clean hydrogen gas was revealed.
While the precise amount of hydrogen gas sitting beneath these coal mines have yet to be defined, it does appear substantial. Estimates suggest that there is between 46 and 260 million metric tons of natural hydrogen gas below. This is a significant amount considering the world currently produces about 70 million metric tons. Being able to tap into this reservoir could provide an abundance of clean hydrogen energy while cutting energy costs. And more importantly, given this large find, this might lead to increased explorations of hydrogen globally. Essentially, if the discovery is confirmed and the hydrogen extracted, hydrogen as an energy source may become commonplace.
“Hydrogen is magical — when you burn it you release water, so there are no carbon emissions to warm the planet. We think we’ve uncovered one of the largest deposits of natural hydrogen anywhere in the world.” – Jacques Pironon, Senior Researcher and Professor, University of Lorraine
Understanding Clean Hydrogen Power
When it comes to using hydrogen as an energy source, there are a few different terminologies. The term clean hydrogen energy refers to natural hydrogen that’s found in natural reservoirs like in Lorraine. In this instance, the pure hydrogen gas forms in the ground as water is heated adjacent to iron-rich rock. The appeal is not only its purity, however, but also the fact that it’s produced naturally. Thus, the only cost involved in using it for clean hydrogen power relates to extraction costs. Depending on the reservoir’s size, there is significant potential here for hydrogen as an energy source to replace other options. By some accounts, hydrogen fuel cells could reduce carbon emissions by 50%.
Understanding the appeal of using hydrogen as an energy source, nations have been pursuing hydrogen production. However, these forms are not nearly as attractive as clean hydrogen power. Gray hydrogen power refers to hydrogen gas produced via fossil fuel energy sources. The carbon emissions that result from this approach undermine the overall objective for cleaner energy. Alternatively, green hydrogen refers to manufactured hydrogen via wind and solar energy sources. These are more appealing from a climate and environmental perspective. However, these can be more costly in nature. Given this, finding adequate sources of natural hydrogen gas beneath the earth’s surface offers the best alternative. This is why recent hydrogen reservoir discoveries are highly relevant.
“People had not been looking for natural hydrogen for years and years because everyone was focused on drilling for oil and gas.” – Julien Moulin, president of Française De l’Énergie
Growing Investments in Clean Hydrogen Explorations
Based on the growing potential of clean hydrogen power, many countries and companies are pursuing hydrogen as an energy source. Several countries have been subsidizing the production of green hydrogen including the U.S. This is because the average cost of making green hydrogen requires a sales price of about $5 per kilogram. With subsidies, however, this is expected to fall to about $1 per kilogram within the decade. In contrast, gray hydrogen costs about half of this price but is not nearly as attractive. It is not yet known what the average cost of clean hydrogen power will be because too many variables exist. Depending on a reservoir’s pressure, temperature, and location, costs could be significant. But its pursuit is certainly worth the effort based on its promise.
With this in mind, several companies are heavily invested in clean hydrogen power initiatives. In Australia, Gold Hydrogen is actively involved in exploration and extraction. Koloma is a Colorado-based company involved in similar activities. In Spain, Helios Aragon has a major project in the Pyrenees to exploit hydrogen as an energy source. And lastly, Française De l’Énergie is involved in the Lorraine project, which hopes to be extracting large amounts of hydrogen by 2028. It’s therefore too early to tell if hydrogen will be a major clean energy alternative. But signs look favorable, and within years we should know for certain is hydrogen as an energy source is viable.