Naturally occurring hydrogen: an abundant green fuel?

Burning hydrogen produces only water vapour, so it is not surprising that it has been touted as the ultimate ‘green’ energy source, and increasingly attracts the view that the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ may replace that based on fossil fuels. It is currently produced from natural gas by ‘steam reforming’ of methane that transforms water vapour and CH4 to hydrogen and carbon monoxide. That clearly doesn’t make use of the hydrogen ‘green’ as the CO becomes carbon dioxide because it reacts with atmospheric oxygen; it is termed ‘grey hydrogen’. But should it prove possible to capture CO and store it permanently underground in some way then that can be touted as ‘blue hydrogen’ thereby covering up the carbon footprint of all the rigmarole in getting the waste CO into a safe reservoir. However, if carbon-free electricity from renewables is used to electrolyse water into H and O the hydrogen aficionados can safely call it ‘green hydrogen’.   It seem there is a bewildering colour coding for hydrogen that depends on the various options for its production: ‘yellow’ if produced using solar energy; ‘red’ if made chemically from biowaste; ‘black’ by coking coal using steam; ‘pink’ is electrolysis using nuclear power; and even ‘turquoise’ hydrogen if methane is somehow turned into hydrogen and solid carbon using renewables – a yet-to-be-developed technology! Very jolly but confusing: almost suspiciously so!

But not to be forgotten is the ‘white’ variety, applied to hydrogen that is emitted by natural processes within the Earth. Eric Hand, the European news editor for the major journal Science has written an excellent Feature article about ‘white’ hydrogen in a recent issue (Hand, E. 2023. Hidden hydrogen. Science, v. 379, article adh1460; DOI: 10.1126/science.adh1460). Hand’s feature is quirky, but well-worth a read. It is based on the proceedings of a Geological Society of America mini-conference about non-petroleum, geological energy resources  held in October 2022. He opens with a bizarre anecdote related by a farmer who lives in rural Mali. The only drilling that ever went on in his village was for water, and many holes were dry. But one attempt resulted in ‘wind coming out of the hole’. When a driller looked in the hole, the ‘wind’ burst into flame – he had a cigarette in his mouth. The fire burned for months. Some 20 years later the story reached a Malian company executive who began prospecting the area’s petroleum potential, believing the drilling had hit natural gas. Analysis of the gas revealed that it was 98% hydrogen – now the village has electricity generated by ‘white’ hydrogen.

Mantle rock in the Oman ophiolite, showing cores of fresh peridotite, surrounded by brownish serpentinite and white magnesium carbonate veins (credit: Juerg Matter, Oman Drilling Project, Southampton University, UK)

So how is hydrogen produced by geological processes? Some springs in the mountains of Oman also release copious amounts of the gas. The springs emerge from ultramafic rocks of the vast ophiolite that was emplaced onto the Arabian continental crust towards the end of the Cretaceous. The lower part of this obducted mass of oceanic lithosphere is mantle rock dominated by iron- and magnesium-rich silicates, mainly olivine [(Mg,Fe)2SiO4 – a solid solution of magnesium and iron end members]. When saturated with groundwater in which CO2 is dissolved olivine breaks down slowly but relentlessly. The hydration reaction is exothermic and generates heat, so is self-sustaining. Olivine’s magnesium end member is hydrated to form the soft ornamental mineral serpentine (Mg3Si2O5(OH)4) and magnesium carbonate. Under reducing conditions the iron end member reacts with water to produce an iron oxide, silica and hydrogen:

3Fe2SiO4 + 2H2O → 2 Fe3O4 + 3SiO­2 +3H2

Gases emanating from mid-ocean ridges contain high amounts of hydrogen produced in this way, for example from Icelandic geothermal wells. But Mali is part of an ancient craton, so similar reactions involving iron-rich ultramafic rocks deep in the continental crust are probably sourcing hydrogen in this way too. Hydrogen production on the scale of that discovered in Mali seems to be widespread, with discoveries in Australia, the US, Brazil and the Spanish Pyrenees that have pilot-scale production plants. The US Geological Survey has estimated that around 1 trillion tonnes of ‘white’ hydrogen may be available for extraction and use

Hydrogen, like other natural gases, may be trapped below the surface in the same ways as in commercial petroleum fields. But petroleum-gas wells emit little if any hydrogen mixed in with methane. That absence is probably because petroleum fields occur in deep sedimentary basins well above any crystalline basement. The geophysical exploration that discovers and defines the traps in petroleum fields has never been deployed over areas of crystalline continental crust because as far as the oil companies are concerned they are barren. That may be about to change. There is another exploration approach: known hydrogen seepage seems to deter vegetation so that the sites are in areas of bare ground, which have been called ‘fairy circles’. These could be detected easily using remote sensing techniques.

Artificially increasing serpentine formation by pumping water into the mantle part of ophiolites, such as that in Oman, and other near-surface ultramafic rocks is also a means of carbon sequestration, which should produce hydrogen as a by-product (see: Global warming: Can mantle rocks reduce the greenhouse effect?, July 2021). A ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’ opportunity?