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Is geological hydrogen dead or alive?

Metal Tech News - April 19, 2024

With $20 million in DOE funding, MIT and 15 others are carrying out research that will open Schrödinger's box of potentially low-cost source of abundant green energy fuel.

Hydrogen is the Schrödinger's Cat of clean energy fuels – it is both an abundant and affordable clean burning gas that fuels the dreams of a green energy future and a scarce element that comes with a carbon footprint that does not justify the cost to produce it.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is investing $20 million into 16 geological hydrogen projects that could help determine whether the enigmatic green energy element is alive or dead when the box is opened.

"With funding from ARPA-E, project teams from across the nation will explore the possibility of accelerating the production and extraction of natural hydrogen, transforming our understanding of this critical energy resource while accelerating solutions we need to lower energy costs and increase our nation's energy security," said ARPA-E Director Evelyn Wang.

Gretchen Ertl

MIT Assistant Professor Iwnetim Abate.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is among the 16 universities, national labs, and businesses that shared $20 million in funding for early-stage research and development to advance low-cost geological hydrogen – Earth's natural capacity to produce this green energy gas.

With a $1.3 million research grant from ARPA-E, MIT Assistant Professor Iwnetim Abate is leading a team to determine the ideal catalysts, temperature, pressure, pH levels, and other conditions needed to accelerate Earth's natural geological hydrogen-producing ability.

"We aim to optimize the reaction parameters to make the reaction faster and produce hydrogen in an economically feasible manner," said Abate.

Geological hydrogen

Hydrogen has the paradoxical distinction of being the most abundant element in the universe, yet very rare in its pure form here on Earth. This is not to say that it is not plentiful on our planet; it is just that most of the hydrogen found here is locked up with other elements in water, hydrocarbons, and other forms.

Splitting hydrogen from water or natural gas, however, requires a lot of energy that comes with both financial and carbon emissions costs.

The hydrogen currently being split off natural gas for fertilizers, chemicals, and steel production costs about $2 per kilogram to produce and has a significant carbon footprint that is counterproductive when it comes to producing a clean energy fuel.

Green hydrogen, which is produced by splitting water with renewable energy, currently comes at a price of around $7 per kilogram – way too expensive to be a practical solution to fueling global commerce.

"If you get hydrogen at a dollar a kilo, it's competitive with natural gas on an energy-price basis," said Douglas Wicks, a program director at ARPA-E.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Groundwater interacting with olivine, a magnesium-iron silicate mineral, can result in hydrogen building up in the surrounding rocks.

Geological hydrogen, a process that involves iron-rich rock formations producing hydrogen naturally, could be the solution. This process, however, is typically too slow to form large enough deposits to be economically viable.

The U.S. and France, along with private backers such as Bill Gates and Amazon, are investing in the idea that geological hydrogen could be an affordable and green solution for producing an abundance of this clean-burning fuel.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are potentially billions of tons of geologic hydrogen buried in the Earth's crust. Accumulations have been discovered worldwide, and a slew of startups are searching for extractable deposits.

The ARPA-E grants are funding teams looking to address what Wicks calls a "total white space" in the realm of geological hydrogen.

"In geologic hydrogen, we don't know how we can accelerate the production of it, because it's a chemical reaction, nor do we really understand how to engineer the subsurface so that we can safely extract it," Wicks says. "We're trying to bring in the best skills of each of the different groups to work on this under the idea that the ensemble should be able to give us good answers in a fairly rapid timeframe."

Opening the box

The Abate-led team at MIT is looking to solve the acceleration side of the geological hydrogen equation through proactive approaches to stimulating production and harvesting the clean-burning gas.

"We aim to optimize the reaction parameters to make the reaction faster and produce hydrogen in an economically feasible manner," said Abate.

To accomplish this, the MIT researchers are looking for the perfect recipe for a fluid that will induce the chemical reaction that triggers hydrogen production in rocks.

In order to keep the costs below economic parameters for hydrogen, whatever catalytic fluid they come up with needs to be inexpensive and abundant. This likely takes platinum group metals, which are great hydrogen catalysts but are also very expensive, off the table.

"A catalyst that's inexpensive and abundant will allow us to enhance the production rate – that way, we produce it at an economically feasible rate, but also with an economically feasible yield," said Yifan Gao, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT.

The team's main ingredient, water, fits the bill. For the rest of the ingredients, the MIT researchers are utilizing artificial intelligence software and robotics to test different catalyst mixtures and simulate what would happen when applied to rocks from various regions with different external conditions like temperature and pressure.

"And from that we measure how much hydrogen we are producing for each possible combination," Abate said. "Then the AI will learn from the experiments and suggest to us, 'Based on what I've learned and based on the literature, I suggest you test this composition of catalyst material for this rock.'"

Once the perfect hydrogen catalyst recipe is formulated, the team will design a lab-scale reactor that will allow them to identify the chemical conditions that lead to improved hydrogen production.

This lab reactor would then serve as a prototype to design a real-world reactor that can accelerate hydrogen production in the field.

"That would be a plant-scale reactor that would be implanted into the subsurface," Abate says.

For Wicks, the questions Abate and the other grant recipients are asking are just the first critical steps into uncharted energy territory.

"If we can understand how to stimulate these rocks into generating hydrogen, safely getting it up, it really unleashes the potential energy source," he said.

The ARPA-E program director said the DOE-fund programs hope to discover in a very short time, "Is there really something there?"

Or, put in the terms of Schrödinger's thought experiment, will geological hydrogen be dead or alive when the box is opened?

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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