Natural Hydrogen May Seem New in Town, but It’s Been Here All Along


GettyImages-1431241345-1-300x200When it comes to renewable energy, hydrogen is hailed as a pivotal resource in the zero-carbon game plan. Hydrogen energy is accessible, produces lower greenhouse gas emissions and can use existing gas infrastructure to power electricity and heat, produce other gases and fuels, and more. Recently, a “new” type of hydrogen—has captured the attention of climate scientists. Natural hydrogen—often referred to as gold hydrogen—stands apart from other, more established types of hydrogen, which require extraction and expensive maneuvering to produce. Natural hydrogen exists underground in its pure form (i.e., it’s not combined with other molecules). Estimates vary, but some researchers suspect that Earth holds as much as five million megatons of hydrogen beneath our feet. Extracting just 2 percent of that supply, in theory, has the potential to get us to net-zero emissions for 200 years.

From Past Prediction to Accidental Discovery
Viacheslav Zgonnik, CEO of the Denver-based startup Natural Hydrogen Energy, told the New York Times that Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (also known as the “Father of the Periodic Table”) wrote about the presence of natural hydrogen as long ago as 1888. Somehow, the information was lost along the way, and when pockets of such hydrogen were occasionally found, they were treated as anomalies.

More than a century after Medeleev’s observation, drillers in Mali looking for water had given up on a particular borehole that came up dry. When a crew member leaned over the hole with a lit cigarette, he ignited an explosion. A witness shared, “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.” Once the flames were finally extinguished weeks later, villagers wanted nothing to do with the site—until 2007, when Aliou Diallo, chairman of a Malian oil and gas company, acquired rights to prospect the land. In 2012, he and his team discovered that an unidentified gas coming from the ground was 98% hydrogen. He shifted his company’s mission from oil and gas to hydrogen and built a hydrogen generator that still powers his village today.

In 2018, the science community learned of Mali’s hydrogen breakthrough and, for the first time, began to fully explore whether large reserves of the substance could be tapped into elsewhere. Significant underground hydrogen has now also been sited in the United States, Canada, Finland, the Philippines, Australia, Brazil, Oman, Turkey and France. Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told CNN that he—like many in the field—previously believed such reservoirs of natural hydrogen couldn’t exist. Now, he says, “here we are in what I think is probably a second revolution.”

A New Clean Energy Contender?
Thus far, renewable, or electrolytic, hydrogen has been considered the MVP of hydrogen-based energy. Unlike hydrogen produced from methane, which still produces pollution that must be captured before it enters the atmosphere, renewable hydrogen uses sustainable energy to split hydrogen out of water, and it does not produce emissions. However, it is expensive, and it relies on nature’s cooperation for the windmills and solar panels that power it. Natural hydrogen could eliminate the need for the additional expense and processing that have limited other types of hydrogen. The U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is investing $20 million in companies developing natural hydrogen technologies, saying that it could cost less than $1 per kilogram—compared to $4.50 to $12 per kilogram for renewable hydrogen. Another perk is that the natural alternative is believed to be an inexhaustible resource. It is produced through ongoing geologic processes, such as when iron-rich rocks interact with water beneath the Earth’s crust. Plus, proponents say that existing (and often abandoned) oil wells can be repurposed for natural hydrogen. And perhaps what excites climate experts the most, is that not only is water the sole byproduct of natural hydrogen, but since it exists in a pure form, processing it could also require less energy, less water and a have a smaller footprint.

Startups are moving quickly to capitalize on clean energy’s latest potential gold rush. One Denver-based natural hydrogen startup, Koloma, has secured $91 million from investors, including the Bill Gates-founded investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The company plans to drill and produce in the United States. Meanwhile, Viacheslav Zgonnik of Natural Hydrogen Energy says the company is close to commercializing its hydrogen—drilling could begin this year. And Houston-based companies Cemvita and ChampionX announced a pilot project for 2024 in which they intend to demonstrate that a Canadian well currently producing just a few barrels of oil per day can be quickly converted to produce up to one ton of hydrogen daily. Dozens more startups are jumping into the field, hopeful that being able to access existing oil and gas infrastructure could expedite the extraction process. Big oil companies have not joined the natural hydrogen experiment yet, but they are watching the results closely of these initial test projects.

Despite growing enthusiasm, natural hydrogen projects are still in their infancy. Some startups claim they are close to commercial availability, but an AEGeo energy consultant and geoscientist, Arnout Everts, told E&E News that “the only way to scale up production to offtake levels similar to natural gas development, would be to drill hundreds or even thousands of wells.” The village of Bourakébougou in Mali remains the only place in the world using natural hydrogen as fuel. Many startups hope to change that reality very soon.