Renewable energy is the clear and only path for the future. But getting to a world where most cars, homes, and manufacturing plants are powered by clean energy will take time. Years, even decades, lay between the current age of fossil fuels and renewables being the primary source of energy humanity relies on.
That’s why a handful of startups are pursuing underground hydrogen. Those at the forefront of the industry believe it could be the future of renewable energy, but the time to start exploring is now.
Hydrogen as an energy source has been eluding scientists for decades. Run through a fuel cell, it can power cars with only water vapor created as an emission. But gathering hydrogen, ironically done using natural gas in many cases, creates carbon pollution. Greener methods of creating hydrogen use more energy than they generate. So where is the bright side?
Enter geologic hydrogen. Found deep underground, much like natural gas, it is dubbed “gold hydrogen”—a fitting name for its revolutionary potential. Notably, it is produced constantly as a byproduct of a chemical reaction involving water and oxidizing iron. Somewhere in between rust and metal, gold hydrogen is formed.
Since this resource is constantly being replenished, it’s a far more renewable energy source than natural gas. In fact, there could be as much as 150 trillion metric tons of underground hydrogen waiting to be discovered. Just one billion metric tons could power the entire United States for a year, according to many experts.
COO of the Australian-based hydrogen startup HyTerra Luke Velterop says, “Imagine the potential of an underground factory fueled by nature, that generates a replenishing supply of clean, dispatchable energy.”
With the promise of underground hydrogen as a renewable, clean fuel source, it’s no surprise many companies large and small are already in pursuit. Shell, BP, and Chevron have joined a consortium to study the substance. Meanwhile, smaller startups are already getting their hands dirty searching for it.
HyTerra and National Hydrogen Energy are prepared to look in both Nebraska and Kansas while Gold Hydrogen aims to drill in Australia.
The problem is, finding underground hydrogen is a tedious game. Much like uncovering new deposits of natural gas, those seeking gold hydrogen must rely on the same tools and drilling rigs to explore promising areas thousands of feet underground.
So why haven’t we been looking for underground hydrogen for longer? And why are big energy companies just now starting to join in? For years, the very existence of gold hydrogen was hotly debated. Many experts believed it didn’t exist and reports of hydrogen pockets underground went largely unexplored.
Partially, the delay in finding underground hydrogen can be traced back to invisible microbes. Living alongside hydrogen underground, several species of bacteria devour the bountiful substance as their only food source.
USGS petroleum geochemist Geoff Ellis told Forbes in a statement, “It’s not that surprising that it’s been overlooked because it’s a colorless, odorless gas and these microbes eat it really efficiently in the subsurface as it’s leaking out of the ground.”
Although underground hydrogen is extremely promising, experts warn that expectations should remain tempered. Much of the 150 trillion tons of hydrogen hiding beneath the Earth’s surface may be too far away for us to reach.
Ellis says, “Most of this is going to be way too deep or too far offshore, or accumulations that are much too small that they would never be economic.”
Even so, Ellis and other experts believe even 2-3% of the available supply could be enough to meet rising energy demands should hydrogen become a primary fuel source. That’s enough hope for companies like HyTerra, which has raised $4 million for its drilling efforts to date.
Of course, finding hydrogen isn’t the only barrier to consider. Above ground, the world will need to adapt to a new fuel source—one which isn’t compatible with the mass majority of infrastructure and machinery in use today. Transitioning to hydrogen power would be a massive, almost unfathomable undertaking. But in the long run, it would be worth it if underground hydrogen proves to be a reliable energy source.
Ultimately, gold hydrogen is another promising chance at a green future. However, we’ll have to wait and see not only if it can be obtained, but if the world is ready to accept it.