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Squeezing hydrogen out of iron-rich rocks

Metal Tech News - April 2, 2024

University of Texas researchers are exploring the potential to catalyze geological hydrogen with nickel or PGMs.

Hydrogen is a highly combustible gas that only emits water into the atmosphere when it is burned, making it an ideal fuel for the clean energy future. This green fuel, however, has the paradoxical distinction of being the most abundant element in the universe but extremely scarce in its pure form here on Earth.

Hydrogen's abundance enigma that stems from the gas' elemental nature – it is so light that it simply ascends out of our atmosphere and disperses into space – has scientists investigating ways to split this element off other compounds such as water or natural gas.

Now, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are investigating the potential of catalyzing geological hydrogen – Earth's natural capacity to produce this green energy gas.

"We're producing hydrogen from rocks," said Toti Larson, a research associate professor at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences Bureau of Economic Geology and the lead researcher on the project.

To accomplish this, the researchers are investigating the potential of using catalysts such as nickel and platinum group metals (PGM) to boost the natural hydrogen-producing capacity of iron-rich rock formations. If successful, this geological process could offer an alternative to producing hydrogen from fossil fuels.

"It's a type of non-fossil fuel production of hydrogen from iron-rich rocks that has never been attempted at an industrial scale," Larson added.

Catalyzing geological hydrogen

Iron-rich rock formations naturally produce hydrogen through a geologic process called "serpentinization." This process, however, usually requires high temperatures and does not typically produce enough hydrogen to be economically captured before it escapes.

"Natural accumulations of geologic hydrogen are being found all over the world, but in most cases, they are small and not economical, although exploration continues," said Esti Ukar, a research associate professor at the Jackson School and a collaborator on the project. "If we could help generate larger volumes of hydrogen from these rocks by driving reactions that would take several million years to happen in nature, I think geologic hydrogen could really be a game changer."

The idea is intriguing enough for the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to award the University of Texas' research team a $1.7 million grant to explore catalyzed geological hydrogen.

University of Texas

Click photo for more information on Esti Ukar's research into the storage of CO2 in nickel-rich ultramafic rocks.

The research being carried out in partnership with scientists at the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources is investigating the feasibility of this process by catalyzing hydrogen production at lower temperatures and at depths easily accessible by today's technology, where iron-rich rocks are found throughout the world.

Having already conducted successful tests at the lab scale, the collaborative research team will use the ARPA-E grant money to test the process on a broad range of iron-rich rock types found across North America. This work is expected to include introducing nickel or PGM catalysts into Midcontinent Rift basalts in Iowa, banded iron formations in Wyoming, and ultramafic rocks in the Midwest.

"If we could replace hydrogen that is sourced from fossil fuels with hydrogen sourced from iron-rich rocks, it will be a huge win," Larson said.

This project is one of several research initiatives through the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences investigating the role Earth's subsurface can play in the energy transition. This includes Ukar's literal groundbreaking research into injecting carbon dioxide into nickel-rich ultramafic deposits to both store the CO2 and make mining battery metal easier.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.


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