White Hydrogen: Hype or Hope?

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Accidents are a common occurrence in the innovation process. An attempt to create an incredibly strong adhesive in 3M’s laboratories accidentally created an incredibly weak adhesive, eventually resulting in the Post-it Note. An enterprising soap company invented a wallpaper cleaner made from water, salt, and flour, which eventually became Play-Doh. One of the most popular topics in the energy transition today was in part borne of an accident as well. When a local community was drilling a water well in western Mali in 1987, it failed to find water; instead, it found a odorless gas. An unlucky employee discovered the flammability of this gas when they lit a cigarette near the well, leading it to be sealed shut. Only about 20 years later did subsequent testing confirm the surprising find: This was gaseous hydrogen, occurring naturally within Earth. 

Today, “white” hydrogen, or naturally occurring hydrogen, is rapidly becoming one of the fastest growing topics in the energy transition — in part spurred by a nearly USD 250 million funding round from Koloma to explore naturally occurring hydrogen. With decarbonization pressure mounting for oil and gas companies, there is no more tempting opportunity than white hydrogen: You can use existing expertise and pursue lower carbon emissions. However, there is much more below the surface, and here we outline key questions surrounding white hydrogen. 

  1. What is white hydrogen, and how is it formed? White hydrogen is naturally occurring hydrogen that is produced and found in geological formations. There are various ways in which hydrogen gas can be produced in Earth’s crust, but serpentization (reacting iron-containing rock with water to produce hydrogen) and radiolysis (radioactive elements in rocks splitting water through radiation) are the most important. 
  2. How much white hydrogen is there? We don’t yet know. Given how early the industry is, no comprehensive, independent study has mapped the global reserves of natural hydrogen. The most recent academic review in 2020 estimates that up to 23 Mtonne/y of hydrogen can be obtained geologically; for reference, we are producing 100 Mtonne/y of hydrogen from natural gas today. The U.S. Geological Survey is working on quantifying global natural hydrogen reserves, and while its results aren’t yet publicly available, it is already hinting at natural hydrogen reserves of trillions of metric tons. It is worth noting, though, that these are just academic estimates, and they don’t consider commercial viability — just because hydrogen is present underground doesn’t mean it can be cost effectively extracted. For instance, the U.S. has a technically recoverable reserve of 84 trillion m3 of natural gas, but only 17 trillion m3 is recoverable under existing economic and operational conditions (also known as “proven reserves”).
  3. What is the current stage of development? The only hydrogen well in operation remains the Hydroma well in Mali noted earlier. It was found to contain 98% pure hydrogen and is now used to power a nearby village. No other well is currently extracting naturally occurring hydrogen. 
  4. What challenges remain in white hydrogen? The biggest challenge today is in locating reserves. The reactive nature of hydrogen means that it is unlikely that there will be signs at the surface that a hydrogen reservoir lies underneath. Additionally, hydrogen isn’t found in existing oil and gas reserves, as any hydrogen would likely have been converted into hydrocarbons. Geologic reserves of hydrogen thus cannot be assumed to be in locations that were previously explored for oil and gas, which means significant financial resources must be spent looking for hydrogen in areas that were never previously geologically characterized. Finally, the source rock for naturally occurring hydrogen differs from that of petroleum. Seismic imaging techniques developed for oil and gas exploration are not therefore necessarily well suited for hydrogen exploration.

Ultimately, the hype continuing to build around white hydrogen will likely continue given the clear alignment to the oil and gas industry’s decarbonization goals and existing skill sets. Expect increased funding and company formation but keep a close eye out for announcements of proven reserves; this will be the next breakthrough in white hydrogen. If and when such an announcement comes, it will be inevitably followed by years of development to bring a project to life. While not yet a threat to the future of blue, green, or other low-carbon intensity forms of hydrogen generation, all entities in the hydrogen economy should keep a close eye on developments in the space. 

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