We already knew about gray, blue and green hydrogen, but now it turns out there is also such a thing as white or natural hydrogen. That just comes from the ground, just like natural gas. According to preliminary American research, it could provide half of all the world's hydrogen needs until the year 2100 and beyond: hundreds of millions of tons per year. Initial studies have begun in Africa and the Americas.
Burning hydrogen with oxygen releases only water. It is therefore seen as the clean energy source of the future. At least if it is not made from natural ash or coal (gray), nor by first capturing the CO2 (blue), but by electrolysis of water with wind or solar power (green). The gas is now mainly used to heat processes in the chemical industry and in the production of steel and fertilizer. In the transition from fossil to green energy, it can serve as a storage buffer for power during sunless and windless periods. It can also be used to run emission-free vehicles and and can even be used to heat . Now the world consumes more than per year. Because of climate measures, experts predict that demand for hydrogen will increase fivefold by 2050.
Not sought in the right place
That hydrogen occurs naturally in the earth's deeper strata has long been known. It is created there through chemical reactions, for example of water with iron. But until recently it was never found in large quantities. With recent discoveries in Africa, Australia and the U.S., earth scientists are beginning to believe they never looked in the right place. Meanwhile, searches for white hydrogen are underway in Africa, South America, Australia, the U.S., France and Spain.
Green successor to oil
The American Geological Society (GSA) concluded in a last October that natural hydrogen has the potential to become a major energy source. The model predicts with great certainty that exploitation of white hydrogen could provide at least half of all the world's needed green hydrogen until the year 2100 and beyond. Hundreds of megatons per year can be extracted from it. Therefore, further research into extraction is necessary. This July, the Geological Society is holding a in London on the search for this "free" hydrogen, which the scientific institute believes could become the green successor to oil.
Inexhaustible energy source
The American company (NH2E) calls natural, white hydrogen an inexhaustible source of renewable energy. The company is a pioneer in the search for white hydrogen in the earth's subsoil, and in 2019 it conducted its first successful drilling after 20 years of research. According to the company, the amount of natural hydrogen in the Earth's soil is underestimated. It has been created there by organic reactions for millions of years, and it makes the production of green hydrogen with fossil or renewable energy unnecessary. Therefore, it will be cheaper than all renewable alternatives. NH2E's team has obtained concessions for several deposits and has successfully completed initial exploratory drilling. The company is now in the process of starting commercial production.
Power village from white hydrogen
The village of , in the southwestern African country of Mali, has been generating its electricity with white hydrogen from the ground since 2011. This drives a generator. The natural hydrogen reserves in the soil turn out to be much larger than thought, according to the results of international led by Professor Alain Prinzhofer of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. The diameter of the hydrogen basin is not eight but 150 kilometers and it contains significant quantities of hydrogen. These could be exploited sustainably and relatively easily. That extraction would also be a lot cheaper than producing hydrogen in a factory, whether it is done with fossil fuels or green electricity.
Research across Africa
Because there are more such natural hydrogen resources in Africa, the European and African Union have been investigating this further together since last year through the . This is led by the Portuguese knowledge institute . They have made one million euros available for the next three years. The project looks at whether white hydrogen from the ground can generate electricity locally in more places, especially in remote areas that are not connected to the electricity grid. Those local communities can then generate electricity in a green way at low cost, without using water or land for solar panels or industrial power generation. Participating in HyAfrica is a consortium of several German and African knowledge institutes and universities, from Morocco to South Africa, from Mozambique to Togo. The research focuses on these countries.
So expectations are high, but real research results on the amount of white hydrogen in the world and where it can be extracted are still lacking. That is why , the hydrogen expert in the Netherlands and part-time professor of Future Energy Systems at TU Delft, is cautious. For him, too, white hydrogen is still partly uncharted territory. "I do know it. You can get it from the ground in some places, for example in Africa and Australia," he says. "I do have my doubts whether it can be applied on a large scale. There are probably not large amounts of it in the ground. Let's say: it should definitely be looked at, but with all the ifs and buts, my initial assessment is that it can only make a marginal contribution to the energy transition. You can still make hydrogen best with water and green electricity."