The news context 

It seemed almost too good to be true.

Just over a week ago, news broke of a massive land grab of hydrogen-rich acreage across a huge chunk of South Australia. 

Acreage covering a third of the state was targeted for its “gold” “geologic” hydrogen deposits that many believe will produce cheaper hydrogen fuel.

Six companies have taken up or applied for 18 exploration licences in less than 12 months targeting hydrogen deposits covering 32 per cent of the entire state, according to a report in The Australian Financial Review. 

Mark Hanna, co-founder of H2EX, which holds four exploration licences over the area, told the newspaper that analysis from Europe on the costs of geologic hydrogen indicated production was three or four times cheaper than creating the gas through electrolysis from renewable energy.

In Mali an accidental find of extremely high purity hydrogen has evolved into a fuel source powering the entire village of Bourakébougou “without CO2 emissions”.

Back in 2015, geologic hydrogen company Hydroma accidentally discovered a deposit of H2 while drilling for water in Bourakebougou, in the west African country. After analysing the well, Bougou-1, the company discovered that the gas had a concentration of 98 per cent pure H2 – making it the purest naturally occurring hydrogen ever discovered. After analysing 12 more wells, they estimated that the size of the hydrogen field was around eight kilometres in diameter. 

The accidental discovery has enabled Hydroma to provide enough electricity to power a  nearby village, with the potential, it’s believed to last for thousands of years, essentially decarbonising the entire community. 

But are the prospects for this so-called geologic hydrogen realistic? Are there emissions that must be captured and stored?

It’s early days with very little known so far, except that concentrations of this so-called “geologic hydrogen” deposits can vary from zero to 98 per cent. 

Area covering a third of South Australia has been snapped up for potential “geologic” hydrogen deposits

Environmental groups are sceptical. 

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) told The Fifth Estate that much of this investor boom can be attributed to the gas industry trying to stay relevant, and that “green” hydrogen (hydrogen extracted from water by electrolysis) is much better than “natural” (or “geologic”) hydrogen, because the latter needs to be extracted from natural gas.

“The challenge with this so-called ‘natural’ hydrogen is that it is a finite resource and comes with plenty of methane so it just adds to the extraction of fossil fuels and would need expensive and unproven carbon capture to work,” said BZE head of research Tom Quinn.

“Green hydrogen is essentially an infinite resource that sets up Australian industry for the long term as it will continue to get cheaper as production ramps up. Our trading partners want green hydrogen and it will help firm up energy storage in a 100 per cent renewable grid. Our research shows that Australia could have a $47 billion green hydrogen industry by 2050.”

So it’s all a bit confusing –  let’s break it down.

Different forms of hydrogen extraction produce different amounts of emissions. 

So, what types of hydrogen energy are there?

Different types of hydrogen can produce different amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, it’s confusing. Here are some definitions, which we believe are in order of most harmful to least harmful. Keep this on hand:

  • “Natural gas” (also called fossil gas, fossil fuels, or just gas) is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture generally consisting of methane, ethane, and other elements found deep underground. Natural gas can contain hydrogen which would need to be extracted to use. 
  • “Brown hydrogen” is extracted from coal, and emissions are released into the air
  • “Grey hydrogen” is extracted from natural gas, and emissions are released to the air
  • “Blue hydrogen” is extracted from natural gas, and emissions are captured using carbon capture and storage.
  • “Green hydrogen” is extracted through electrolysis splitting the molecules of water into two atoms of hydrogen (H) and one atom of oxygen (O). Electrolysis is achieved by using clean energy (wind or solar). A report from the Australian National University last year estimated that Australia could produce green hydrogen at about $3.18-3.80 a kilogram and at $2 a kg by the end of the decade, making it cost-competitive with fossil fuels. However, it can be expensive to produce, difficult to store, and can use a lot of water
  • “Geologic hydrogen” is the word we use to refer to hydrogen deposits found deep within the earth. According to Dr Andrew Feitz from Geosciences Australia, rocks like granite contain minerals that undergo radioactive decay. As they undergo radioactive decay, they push out alpha, beta, and gamma rays which interact with water to create hydrogen. This hydrogen gas, which has extremely small molecules, flows up through cracks in the rock until it becomes trapped underneath impermeable rocks, such as rock salts or dolerite.
  • Hydrogen can be produced at depths less than tens of kilometres underground. There are other ways hydrogen can be produced underground, but the radioactive decay pathway is one of the main ones.
  • This “geologic” hydrogen has been found in very pure deposits as high as 98 per cent, as in the Mali example, meaning that virtually no GHG emissions are produced. But the “geologic” hydrogen could also be found at low levels of concentration with other gases that could escape or need to undergo capture and storage. What companies are searching for is those high purity concentrations of hydrogen trapped under layers if salt deposits subsurface. 
  • This chemical reaction is natural and ongoing, meaning that it will keep rejuvenating, potentially forever. However, it’s unknown if current deposits exist in commercial quantities and if the rate of replenishment is fast enough to match the rate of extraction. But Australia’s extensive salt deposits are encouraging, exploration companies say.
Preliminary map showing major salt deposits which could provide underground storage spaces for hydrogen. From: Geosciences Australia.

SA land grab the “frontier” of geologic hydrogen “gold rush”

Dr Andrew Feitz says that Geosciences Australia is searching for cracks in subsurface granite, and salt deposits where hydrogen gas might be trapped.

H2EX is a start-up company also looking for subsurface fractures and salt domes which may indicate the presence of trapped hydrogen under the earth. The company has applications out on four exploration licences of around 32,000 square kilometres in South Australia. 

In analysing the historical data from resource companies as far back as the 1930s, evidence has been found of hydrogen deposits in the historical logs “but a resource is only valuable when you need it,” H2EX chief financial officer Greschen Brecker told The Fifth Estate. “We’ve had coal, natural gas, oil, so we didn’t need it.” 

H2EX chief financial officer Greschen Brecker

Geological hydrogen, she says, is “complimentary in the energy mix. None of these energies are a slam dunk but if the money is there, the solution will be found. The market absolutely has an appetite for clean energy. 

“We absolutely know it’s there. The question is, is it trapped in commercial quantities?” said Ms Brecker. “It’s an ongoing chemical reaction replenishing constantly. But we don’t know at what pace it’s replenishing: how fast or how slow?”

Dr Feitz said,“We don’t really know how long the extraction process is sustainable for.

“It’s all very new and it’s very uncertain if you could extract the hydrogen fast enough and at rates large enough to make it commercially viable.”

Ms Brecker says that the reason that exploration is happening in South Australia is because the legislation does not exist in other states. She says that hydrogen is a new frontier that is yet to be explored.

“When things are so frontier you need pioneers – a few crazy people to go out and test this, and then the bigger companies will go out and follow suit.”

A report in December states that Gold Hydrogen estimates that hydrogen from that area could power one million homes for 40 years.

The Brisbane-based firm Gold Hydrogen has applied for permits in the south of the Yorke Peninsula and Kangaroo Island.

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