natural hydrogen

natural hydrogen

Hydrogen is both a promising carrier for energy and a source for quasi-endless discussion. Since those discussions mainly deal with the way to produce it, they may be silenced soon. Natural hydrogen is just waiting under our feet to be harvested. Can it rescue the energy transition in time?

One of the major themes in the hydrogen discussion is about green hydrogen, and how the production of it, through wind and solar power, would compete with alternative use of that energy. Producing hydrogen by electrolysis leads to energetic losses and that energy could be put to more effective use, critics say. Harvesting geological hydrogen however, would avoid that limitation.

Adam Brandt is one of the scientists who actively look into the potential of natural hydrogen. He conducted a life-cycle assessment of hydrogen production from natural, geological accumulations to find out whether the idea has commercial potential.

How much natural hydrogen?

But let’s first look at the availability: where can we find it and how easy or difficult is it to extract geological hydrogen?

One location where there is actual activity is Mali. Back in 1987 an active well was discovered, be it by accident. It took over 20 years to appreciate what was found, and before some serious efforts to exploit the well started.

But already in 1888 a discovery of natural hydrogen was mentioned in Ukraine, in 1921 in Australia and in 1988 in mines in Canada and Finland.

The Mali site is somewhat illustrative of the present natural hydrogen landscape: oil companies know it is around, but never actually looked for it, or even noted when it appeared to be present. Those cases were rather seldom, because typical conditions for geological hydrogen to form are quite different from oil and gas wells, both in circumstances as locations.

As a result, actual exploitation is seldom, and success so far was limited.

But large reserves of natural hydrogen may exist all over the world. Researchers say water-rock reactions deep within the Earth continue to generate hydrogen. There might even be enough natural hydrogen to meet global demand for thousands of years, according to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) model from October 2022.


Furthermore, natural hydrogen, even as it is extracted from the earth as a resource, is not a fossil energy. As we learned before, it is generated from a continuous process of water, reacting with natural occurring iron in rock formations. However, at what speed and in which quantities we don’t know yet.

Another promising aspect is the cost of extraction, which is estimated around $ 0,50 per kg, whereas producing one kg of green or grey hydrogen costs respectively $5,- or $ 2,50.

Will the extraction of natural hydrogen have an impact on the climate?

In his analysis, Brandt focuses specifically on the question of whether extracting hydrogen could be harmful to the environment. Mining or drilling would lead to some leakage of the gas into the atmosphere, where it does react with other greenhouse gases. That could result in an increase in their lifespan.

Next, geological hydrogen is seldom pure. Often, it is mixed with methane, nitrogen, or other gases. Those would have to be removed before use, which would require energy, and might lead to greenhouse gas emissions.

Why isn’t the whole world looking for natural hydrogen?

One could argue that exactly oil companies are perfectly equipped to go all out on it. They have the knowledge, the infrastructure, and the money for it. And they are under heavy criticism from society for their role in the present climate crisis. Yet they don’t.

They instead leave the initial prospecting to small pioneers, avoiding risks and investments. Secondly, fast and successful development of the market for natural hydrogen could come at the expense of a drop in oil and gas prices, thus reducing their short-term profits.

Even when the climate is going bust and the need to be energy-independent from rogue – or even aggressive enemy – states is more imminent than ever, the solution that can bail us out is not pursued. As were the electric car, solar and wind energy for too long. Oil companies make money on oil. Do we have to wait now again for decades for the hydrogen sector to pick up? It might very well be too late.

Read more about natural hydrogen in Science. 

Image: Wikimedia, Carole Raddato