Begin typing your search...

Sustainable alternatives: A gold mine of clean energy under our feet

How much cheaper would it be if we could drill for hydrogen the way we drill for oil and natural gas, and put to good use society’s enormous investment in equipment built for the exploration, production and transportation of fossil fuels

Sustainable alternatives: A gold mine of clean energy under our feet
Representative image

Sometimes we miss things in front of our faces. We don’t see what we aren’t looking for. “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness,” Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who shared a Nobel in economic science, wrote in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” A flower, for instance. “Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” the artist Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote. You know what else has been hiding in plain sight? Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen, which is heralded as the clean energy carrier of the future because its only combustion product is water.

Sure, we’ve known about the hydrogen that’s locked up with oxygen in water molecules and with carbon in fossil fuels like propane. But we — and by “we” I mean everybody except for a handful of scientists and some people in Mali (I’ll get to that) — never really saw, and never expected to see, hydrogen floating around on its own in gaseous form. “Hydrogen does not exist freely in nature,” the National Renewable Energy Laboratory confidently states on its website. “Hydrogen occurs naturally on Earth only in compound form with other elements in liquids, gases or solids,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration avers.

In fact, though, hydrogen gas does exist in large quantities in Earth’s crust, a fantastic bit of news that has gotten altogether too little attention. Right now, hydrogen is mostly produced from methane, releasing carbon dioxide. That’s dirty, although there are ways to capture the carbon dioxide. Hydrogen can also be produced from water, but that takes a lot of electricity.

Just think how much cheaper and easier would it be if we could drill for hydrogen the same way we drill for oil and natural gas, and thus put to good use society’s enormous investment in equipment built for the exploration, production and transportation of fossil fuels.

I found out about what scientists call natural hydrogen from reading an excellent article published on Feb. 16 in the journal Science, titled “Hidden Hydrogen,” which asks, “does Earth hold vast stores of a renewable, carbon-free fuel?” I interviewed several of the scientists who are at the forefront of studying natural hydrogen, and I read their academic papers.

To be sure, natural hydrogen isn’t a certain thing. While I’ve become convinced that there is a lot of it, something that’s valuable isn’t necessarily economically recoverable (as I discussed in my newsletter on the “$10 quintillion asteroid”).

But the optimism is welling up. There may be hundreds of millions of megatons of hydrogen in Earth’s crust, and even if only 10 percent of it is accessible, that would last thousands of years at the current rate of consumption, Geoffrey Ellis, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, told me. He and a colleague, Sarah Gelman, presented their findings to the Geological Society of America in October.

OK, I asked him, but isn’t the idea that the future rate of consumption would be much higher than the current rate? True, he acknowledged. Right now hydrogen is mainly used for lightening and sweetening crude oil, making ammonia for fertilizer, treating metals and processing foods. Cheap hydrogen could also be used to generate electricity or power vehicles. “If we found it everywhere, we’d use it for more things, so maybe it would last only hundreds of years,” he said. “But hopefully in hundreds of years we have cheap fusion so we don’t have to worry about any of this.”

As for cost, natural hydrogen from the ground should be producible for less than $1 per kilogram, versus around $5 per kilogram for “green” hydrogen that’s derived from water by electrolysis, said Viacheslav Zgonnik, the chief executive of a Denver-based start-up, Natural Hydrogen Energy LLC. “My opinion is biased, of course, but I believe that it will happen. That’s why I’m continuing to work on it,” Zgonnik said.

Why haven’t people been talking about this, since it seems like kind of a big deal? That, aside from the huge commercial potential, is what fascinates me. History is replete with examples of ignored discoveries. Take the observation that sailors could prevent scurvy by eating citrus fruits. According to the BBC, the explorer Sir Richard Hawkins recorded in 1622 that “sower lemons and oranges” were “most fruitful” in preventing scurvy. He added, “I wish that some learned man would write of it.” But it took until 1753 for a Dr. James Lind to publish research proving Hawkins right. Even then, the BBC wrote, “it was not until 42 years later that the Admiralty first issued an order for the distribution of lemon juice to sailors.” Meanwhile thousands of sailors had died needlessly.

Zgonnik, a native of Ukraine, spent seven years reading 500 books and papers on natural hydrogen for a review. He found that its presence had been written about as early as 1888 by none other than Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist who laid out the first periodic table of elements. But for a long list of reasons, the knowledge was lost or ignored. One reason is that geologists focused on finding oil and, later, natural gas. Hydrogen gas isn’t typically found near hydrocarbons.

Scientists tended to believe that any hydrogen in the crust would be eaten by microbes for food, or percolate up to the surface and off into space. Findings of pockets of natural hydrogen were dismissed as anomalies. It didn’t help that hydrogen is hard to detect. Chromatographs for detecting various gases used to rely on hydrogen as a medium to carry samples, so any hydrogen in a sample would be indistinguishable from the hydrogen already in the device. And so on.

But as the anomalies accumulated, they got harder and harder for defenders of the standard paradigm to ignore — a precursor of scientific turning points that was described by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” As far back as 2002, Nigel J.P. Smith, of the British Geological Survey, wrote, “It is time for explorationists to take hydrogen more seriously.”

Visit to explore our interactive epaper!

Download the DT Next app for more exciting features!

Click here for iOS

Click here for Android

NYT Editorial Board
Next Story