Could We Be Standing on the Hydrogen Solution? Or is this Cold Fusion 2.0?

February 27, 2023

Is this real? or Cold Fusion 2.0?

Peter Coy in the New York Times:

Sure, we’ve known about the hydrogen that’s locked up with oxygen in water molecules and with carbon in fossil fuels like propane. But we — and by “we” I mean everybody except for a handful of scientists and some people in Mali (I’ll get to that) — never really saw, and never expected to see, hydrogen floating around on its own in gaseous form.

“Hydrogen does not exist freely in nature,” the National Renewable Energy Laboratory confidently states on its website. “Hydrogen occurs naturally on Earth only in compound form with other elements in liquids, gases or solids,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration avers.

In fact, though, hydrogen gas does exist in large quantities in Earth’s crust, a fantastic bit of news that has gotten altogether too little attention. Right now, hydrogen is mostly produced from methane, releasing carbon dioxide. That’s dirty, although there are ways to capture the carbon dioxide. Hydrogen can also be produced from water, but that takes a lot of electricity.

Just think how much cheaper and easier would it be if we could drill for hydrogen the same way we drill for oil and natural gas, and thus put to good use society’s enormous investment in equipment built for the exploration, production and transportation of fossil fuels.

I found out about what scientists call natural hydrogen from reading an excellent article published on Feb. 16 in the journal Science, titled “Hidden Hydrogen,” which asks, “does Earth hold vast stores of a renewable, carbon-free fuel?” I interviewed several of the scientists who are at the forefront of studying natural hydrogen, and I read their academic papers.


IN THE SHADE of a mango tree, Mamadou Ngulo Konaré recounted the legendary event of his childhood. In 1987, well diggers had come to his village of Bourakébougou, Mali, to drill for water, but had given up on one dry borehole at a depth of 108 meters. “Meanwhile, wind was coming out of the hole,” Konaré told Denis Brière, a petrophysicist and vice president at Chapman Petroleum Engineering, in 2012. When one driller peered into the hole while smoking a cigarette, the wind exploded in his face.

“He didn’t die, but he was burned,” Konaré continued. “And now we had a huge fire. The color of the fire in daytime was like blue sparkling water and did not have black smoke pollution. The color of the fire at night was like shining gold, and all over the fields we could see each other in the light. … We were very afraid that our village would be destroyed.”

It took the crew weeks to snuff out the fire and cap the well. And there it sat, shunned by the villagers, until 2007. That was when Aliou Diallo, a wealthy Malian businessman, politician, and chair of Petroma, an oil and gas company, acquired the rights to prospect in the region surrounding Bourakébougou. “We have a saying that human beings are made of dirt, but the devil is made of fire,” Diallo says. “It was a cursed place. I said, ‘Well, cursed places, I like to turn them into places of blessing.’”

In 2012, he recruited Chapman Petroleum to determine what was coming out of the borehole. Sheltered from the 50°C heat in a mobile lab, Brière and his technicians discovered that the gas was 98% hydrogen. That was extraordinary: Hydrogen almost never turns up in oil operations, and it wasn’t thought to exist within the Earth much at all. “We had celebrations with large mangos that day,” Brière says.

Within a few months, Brière’s team had installed a Ford engine tuned to burn hydrogen. Its exhaust was water. The engine was hooked up to a 30-kilowatt generator that gave Bourakébougou its first electrical benefits: freezers to make ice, lights for evening prayers at the mosque, and a flat-screen TV so the village chief could watch soccer games. Children’s test scores also improved. “They had the lighting to learn their lessons before going to class in the morning,” Diallo says. He soon gave up on oil, changed the name of his company to Hydroma, and began drilling new wells to ascertain the size of the underground supply.

The Malian discovery was vivid evidence for what a small group of scientists, studying hints from seeps, mines, and abandoned wells, had been saying for years: Contrary to conventional wisdom, large stores of natural hydrogen may exist all over the world, like oil and gas—but not in the same places. These researchers say water-rock reactions deep within the Earth continuously generate hydrogen, which percolates up through the crust and sometimes accumulates in underground traps. There might be enough natural hydrogen to meet burgeoning global demand for thousands of years, according to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) model that was presented in October 2022 at a meeting of the Geological Society of America.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was crazy,” says Emily Yedinak, a materials scientist who devoted a fellowship at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to drumming up interest in natural hydrogen. “The more that I read, the more I started to realize, wow, the science behind how hydrogen is produced is sound … I was kind of like, ‘Why is no one talking about this?’”

Since 2018, however, when Diallo and his colleagues described the Malian field in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, the number of papers on natural hydrogen has exploded. “It’s absolutely incredible and really exponential,” says geologist Alain Prinzhofer, lead author on the Mali paper and scientific director of GEO4U, a Brazil-based oil and gas services company that is doing more and more hydrogen work. Dozens of startups, many in Australia, are snatching up the rights to explore for hydrogen. Last year, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists formed its first natural hydrogen committee, and USGS began its first effort to identify promising hydrogen production zones in the United States. “We’re in the very beginning, but it will go fast,” says Viacheslav Zgonnik, CEO of Natural Hydrogen Energy. In 2019, the startup completed the first hydrogen borehole in the United States, in Nebraska.

The enthusiasm for natural hydrogen comes as interest in hydrogen as a clean, carbon-free fuel is surging. Governments are pushing it as a way to fight global warming, efforts that were galvanized when Russia invaded Ukraine last year and triggered a hasty search, especially in Europe, for alternatives to Russian natural gas. At the moment, all commercial hydrogen has to be manufactured, either in a polluting way, by using fossil fuels, or in an expensive way, by using renewable electricity. Natural hydrogen, if it forms sizable reserves, might be there for the taking, giving the experienced drillers in the oil and gas industry a new, environmentally friendly mission. “I believe that it has the potential to replace all fossil fuels,” Zgonnik says. “That’s a very large statement, I know.”

Critically, natural hydrogen may be not only clean, but also renewable. It takes millions of years for buried and compressed organic deposits to turn into oil and gas. By contrast, natural hydrogen is always being made afresh, when underground water reacts with iron minerals at elevated temperatures and pressures. In the decade since boreholes began to tap hydrogen in Mali, flows have not diminished, says Prinzhofer, who has consulted on the project. “Hydrogen appears, almost everywhere, as a renewable source of energy, not a fossil one,” he says. 

It is still early days for natural hydrogen. Scientists don’t completely understand how it forms and migrates and—most important—whether it accumulates in a commercially exploitable way. “Interest is growing fast, but the scientific facts are still lacking,” says Frédéric-Victor Donzé, a geophysicist at Grenoble Alpes University. Big Oil is hanging back, watching while wildcatters take on the risky exploratory work. Commercialization of the Mali field has run into snags, and elsewhere only a few exploratory wells have been drilled. Donzé, who has sworn off accepting industry money, worries about hype.


A preliminary box model for the global geologic H2 resource potential has been developed using a mass balance approach. The model inputs include surface flux, trapping efficiency, residence time in traps, and biotic and abiotic H2 consumption (differentiated as shallow versus deep), which are constrained by knowledge of these factors for H2 or other analogues. Earth is assumed to currently be at steady state with respect to H2 flux from the subsurface to the atmosphere. Hydrogen consumption from future production of H2is modeled based on historical natural gas production. Stochastic model results indicate a greater than 98% probability of geologic H2 production meeting at least 50% of the forecast green H2 production by the year 2100 and beyond, with long-term renewable Hproduction potentially in the range of 100s of Mt per year. Moreover, the model indicates that the residence time of H2 in reservoirs and the annual flux of H2 to the atmosphere are the most influential factors affecting the resource potential, whereas variations in biotic and abiotic consumption of H2 have relatively little effect. These results strongly suggest that additional investigation of the resource potential of natural H2 is warranted. This model provides an initial framework for assessing global H2 resource potential and can be an important tool for guiding future research initiative


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