Dr Roderick Mulgan: Fuel of the future
Hydrogen is tipped to tackle various energy crises, but is it really the reliable next-gen energy source it claims to be?
Words: Dr Roderick Mulgan Illustration: Anna Crichton
A few decades ago, public angst over oil was directed at running out of it; today, that prospect has receded, and alarm attaches to filling the air with emissions. Time and new circumstances mean we no longer fret about not having enough but anxiously seek alternatives. Progress is not brilliant. There are wind farms and solar panels, but nothing has yet made a difference, and absent a miracle, global warming is the future. Recently, it became possible to say the outlines of a miracle might just be discernible.
We know so much about our world that we are in danger of forgetting we know so little, particularly things that are hard to see, like deep within the earth. Until 2009, the United States thought it had tapped out its own oil and relied on getting it from uneasy allies in the Middle East. The trade was so important it was a short step to war if anyone interfered, as Saddam Hussein discovered. But then fracking came along. Frackers break open numerous small deposits by pumping down sludge, and when the Earth’s bowels were fracked, they disgorged so much oil the United States now sells it to everyone else. Obviously, it was always there and raises the question of what other useful surprises might lurk unsuspected beneath our feet while we look elsewhere. Perhaps, to take a random possibility, the biggest and most necessary transformation of energy technology in our lifetimes could yet be down there.
Hydrogen is the cleanest of clean fuels because the residue of burning it is just water, and it is high on the list of desirable alternatives, but unfortunately, it is hard to get. Water is the most abundant source of hydrogen in the first place because water is hydrogen married to oxygen, but breaking up water molecules takes a lot of energy, which is not helpful when the point is to acquire some.
Scientists have long known hydrogen is released when water meets iron at the intense heat and pressure of the deep earth (hydrogen from underground is known as “white” or “gold”, as opposed to the various “colours” of the manufactured variety). Hydrogen is the smallest element at the start of the periodic table and percolates easily into the Earth’s crust. It can’t accumulate because few rocks are believed to be dense enough to contain it. Until recently, expert opinion held that white hydrogen dissipated or got eaten by subterranean bacteria (there is a biosphere a thousand feet down of bacteria that live on hydrogen). Until recently, nobody has been looking for underground hydrogen reservoirs because chemistry says none exist.
Then, the water well in Mali happened. In 1987, drillers seeking water in the village of Bourakébougou, Mali, drilled a hole that blew up when a worker with a cigarette leaned over for a look. The bore burned bright blue for weeks before it was capped and sat there forgotten until 2012 when a petroleum company arrived in the district and used its mobile laboratory to test what was down the bore, which proved to be 98 per cent hydrogen. In short order, an engine was acquired that was tuned to burn hydrogen, which was hooked up to a generator that gave the village its first lights, refrigerators and a flat-screen TV for the chief to watch soccer.
All of which amounts to more than a stroke of good luck for the residents of Bourakébougou. The problem with a generator that runs for years on hydrogen from the ground is that it defies settled wisdom in geological circles. Settled wisdom on this score has since become comprehensively unsettled; research teams are out there, and the implications of the data coming back are enormous.
The district around the Mali well has proven to hold a substantial hydrogen reserve. This year, a massive hydrogen field was discovered in Lorraine, eastern France. Others have been found in Spain. Geologists note the relevant conditions — iron-rich pockets of water near tectonic rifts — are commonplace, and commercial interests are homing in. The 1900-odd-kilometre tectonic fault running through North America called the Midcontinental Rift System seems promising, and multiple companies are probing it. The first international summit on geologic hydrogen — online, obviously — was in June 2021.
The United States Geological Survey is an arm of the United States Government and, like most bureaucracies, is not given to hyperbole. In April this year, it published a model that concluded that: “Using a conservative range of input values, the model predicts a mean volume of hydrogen that could supply the projected global hydrogen demand for thousands of years.”
It hastened to add most of it will not be accessible, but humanity doesn’t need most of it. A modest slice would still be enough for centuries.
Nor is that all. The true magic of what has been discovered is that these deposits aren’t fossil. The process that made them is ongoing, like geothermal steam. The system makes more if we stick a pipe down to suck some hydrogen up.
Hydrogen is less convenient than oil because it has to be kept under pressure and leaks readily. Hydrogen cars won’t be topped up by unscrewing the cap and sticking a nozzle in. Likely, if the hydrogen potential comes to pass, the move towards electric will continue, with hydrogen driving the generators at the source. And if the stuff proves cheap, clean and limitless, that will be a nice problem to have. Hydrogen can slot neatly into other huge energy needs, like smelting iron and making ammonia (hydrogen plus nitrogen) for fertiliser and cooking limestone for cement. Ammonia could also be a fuel for ships.
White hydrogen is poised to tip overboard the inchoate morass that currently constitutes humanity’s response to the emissions crisis. Most emissions come from the Third World, whose citizens have no choice where they get their meagre heat and light from, which renders reductions elsewhere largely useless, even if there are some, and we, who do have a choice, still burn coal to power electric cars and use aeroplanes like buses. We mince birds with wind turbines to show we are doing our bit and demonise belching cows whose output keeps the economy afloat and delivers protein to millions of Chinese children who would otherwise go without. The only established technology that could make a real difference — nuclear — is emphatically rejected by the same people who bemoan catastrophe from the climate. Emissions sail merrily on.
The buccaneering edge of capitalism is sniffing the wind and channelling the zeal of 19th-century Pennsylvanian wildcatters. There are new fortunes to be made from drills in the ground, and entrepreneurship is lining them up. First movers are already engaged, and big money is circling. Even Bill Gates has tossed in some venture funds.10 Like most things that move the dial on human progress, we are witnessing the initial happenstance of a new discovery carried forward by the transformative energy of capitalism.
There is still a hurdle of archaic regulations. The issue is so new that many countries don’t have prospecting or extraction rules for hydrogen. Europe is so far behind, it lumps white hydrogen in with fossil fuels and all the restrictions that encompasses.11 Australia is ahead of the pack and has already let hydrogen prospecting licences for most of its southern territory. Given what is at stake, others will catch up soon enough.
The world’s politicians and mainstream media are slowly waking up to what is happening. Headlines are dominated by the war in Ukraine and arguments about pronouns, while potentially the most important development of technology in our lifetimes plays out beyond the spotlight, at least for now. If commercial extraction proves feasible and extensive, which all the portents suggest it will, white hydrogen will not avoid the spotlight for much longer.
• Hydrogen is made by splitting up water molecules. It is called green if renewable energy is used, blue if fossil fuel is used with carbon capture, grey if fossil fuel is used without carbon capture, and pink if the energy comes from nuclear.
• Alain Prinzhofer, Cheick Sidy Tahara Cissé, Aliou Boubacar Diallo, Discovery of a large accumulation of natural hydrogen in Bourakebougou (Mali), International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Volume 43, Issue 42, 2018.