Hydrogen gas does not occur in nature, we thought until recently. Nevertheless, there appears to be quite a bit of hydrogen gas in the soil, which is called white hydrogen. The energy of the future?
What is White Hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element in the universe. Three-quarters of all visible matter in the universe is hydrogen. But here on earth, hydrogen only occurs in a bound form, such as in water. This is because hydrogen is very light and therefore easily escapes from the earth. Hydrogen is also very reactive, so it immediately reacts with oxygen to form water.
Nevertheless, hydrogen gas has now been found in the soil in a few places on earth, enough even to extract. This naturally occurring hydrogen gas is called white hydrogen. That, to distinguish between this natural hydrogen and, for example, green or gray hydrogen.
The discovery of white hydrogen
The first white hydrogen source was accidentally discovered in the poverty-stricken Sahel country of Mali, about 50 km northwest of the capital Bamako. At a drilling for drinking water, near the village of Bourakébougou, an unexpected explosion occurred in 1987 when an employee threw his cigarette butt into the hole. A ghostly ‘devilish’ blue flame has burned day and night ever since, terrifying the Muslim villagers. They feared that their village would be destroyed by the evil spirit.
“Devilish” flame becomes source of cheap electricity
Unexpected, because there is no oil or natural gas in this area. The borehole was closed again in 2012 by the drilling company. Until the wealthy oil entrepreneur Aliou Diallo heard about the “devilish” flame. He found out what was going on here, and turned this “cursed” place into a fountain of blessings.
It turned out to be a rich source of hydrogen. Now this hydrogen is used to provide the villagers with welcome electricity. The company that discovered this white hydrogen source, Hydroma, left the oil business. They focused entirely on hydrogen. For example, they continued to drill for hydrogen in Mali and are now also working to find sources in Australia and Canada. This has also been successful in Nebraska in the United States and Australia, among others. The company now operates under the new name Hyterra.
That is very lucrative, because hydrogen is currently outrageously expensive. Almost all hydrogen that is currently produced is so-called gray hydrogen. This means that the hydrogen is created in a reaction that uses fossil fuels. One kilogram of gray hydrogen can thus cause up to 7 kilograms of CO2 emissions.
It is more environmentally friendly to extract hydrogen by means of electrolysis, electricity from solar panels or other sustainable electricity. Unfortunately, this green hydrogen is very rare and only accounts for 0.1% of all hydrogen produced.
Many people believe in the hydrogen economy because the energy density of hydrogen is high. A kilo of hydrogen contains five times as much energy as a kilo of diesel. Also, the combustion of hydrogen only releases something, and no carbon dioxide or harmful compounds such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide.
Source rock older than the oxygen atmosphere
Geological research shows that the reservoirs of hydrogen only exist under rock domes, which hold the gas. This happens in areas where the oldest rocks in the history of the earth occur, the so-called cratons. These date from 3.8 billion years ago, when Earth was ravaged by heavy asteroid impacts during the last heavy bombardment.
This formed the continental crust, the remnants of which, the cratons, form the core of continents such as Africa, Australia and Eurasia. At that time, as a human being, you could not breathe on Earth, because the atmosphere consisted of nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
But where does this hydrogen come from?
But how does the hydrogen gas get there? There is almost no organic material in the rock there. Researchers believe this was caused by a chemical reaction. When these rocks were formed, billions of years ago, there was hardly any oxygen in the atmosphere and the rocks are therefore low in oxygen. When they react with water, they absorb the oxygen and hydrogen is released.
Traces of carbon monoxide (CO) are also present in the gas, indicating recent formation. Carbon monoxide reacts quite easily with hydrogen, so it could not survive for millions of years. That would make white hydrogen a sustainable energy source, which we may even be able to tap for many millions of years.