Hydrogen is a clean fuel that is gaining popularity and for good reason. It is abundant and reliable, and when generated with clean technologies, produces zero carbon emissions. Environmental benefits aside, the hydrogen fuel industry is estimated to generate as much as $2.5 trillion per year worldwide and employ more than 30 million people by 2050. While its benefits are clear, hydrogen is expensive to make and store. In the Department of Energy’s recent hydrogen roadmap report, the authors cited “cost to end user” as the biggest challenge to wide-scale adoption. However, recent discoveries have found that the answer to affordable and abundant hydrogen may lie underground.
To get conventional hydrogen, it must be split from other elements in the molecules where it occurs. This process is mostly conducted by using steam-methane reforming where high-temperature steam reacts with methane in order to produce hydrogen and other byproducts. Producers can also use electrolysis which uses an electric current to split hydrogen from water.
Underground hydrogen, however, is already isolated by processes happening deep under the earth’s surface. “The Earth does the production for you using pressure and temperature,” said Michael Webber, professor of energy resources at the University of Texas, Austin. Webber describes underground hydrogen as a “cheap, clean, abundant resource that is a game changer for the global economy and for climate change.”
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Because the hydrogen is already isolated, companies can drill for it. Extracting hydrogen from the ground would use the same drilling processes and procedures as those employed by the oil and natural gas industry. But while it is treated carefully because it can be highly flammable, hydrogen is typically viewed as having little risk to the surrounding environment. A predictable, efficient regulatory process would help provide more certainty to producers.
But that is easier said than done. The first step is finding areas where there is a high enough concentration of hydrogen to make it worthwhile financially.
Companies around the globe are working to identify these areas and get a jump on drilling for underground hydrogen. Several American companies are doing the same thing. The Midwest and the Southwest are two regions where drilling for hydrogen may be commercially viable.
Confluence Resources, a Denver-based oil and gas company, is looking at the Four Corners region, where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona come together, as a potential drill site. Rob Sterling, Confluence’s senior vice president for geosciences, says the company is quietly looking for supplies of hydrogen that might be coexisting with underground helium deposits.
“We would use the hydrogen to generate electricity to a grid that is nearby our project area,” explained Sterling. “That way we’re utilizing the hydrogen right there and turning it into a product that is much more transportable.”
Natural Hydrogen Energy is another Denver-based company exploring the potential of underground hydrogen. They are working in Geneva, Nebraska, where they have drilled a test well in the middle of a cornfield. The well is more than 11,200 feet deep, and is getting ready to extract hydrogen supplies. “There will be a lot more discoveries of hydrogen in the near future simply because just no one was looking for it,” said the company’s CEO Viacheslav Zgonnik.
Hydrogen has already been proven to be a clean, efficient fuel source. Now, thanks to exploration for underground hydrogen reserves, use of this fuel may be even more widespread in the coming years.
Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan, a member of the American Conservation Coalition, and a communications specialist at Reason Foundation.