• Naturally occurring hydrogen is also known as ‘white’ or ‘gold’ hydrogen
  • White could offer significant cost and emissions advantages relative to some other means of hydrogen production
  • Hydroma – currently the only producer of white hydrogen in the world – extracts the gas at an estimated cost of just $0.5/kg, well below any other source

 

Much has been made about natural hydrogen – also known as white or gold hydrogen in line with the industry’s need to assign colours to the different sources of the lightest element – with some going so far as to say that it will meet all our clean energy needs.

For the curious, white hydrogen is simply hydrogen that forms when water reacts with iron-rich minerals at elevated temperatures or when radioactive elements split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

The resulting hydrogen then trapped in reservoirs akin to those that host oil and gas.

What’s of interest is that this resource could offer significant cost and emissions advantages relative to some other means of production such as grey hydrogen, which involves breaking down natural gas (methane) into hydrogen and carbon dioxide and the related blue hydrogen that at least tries to do some about the resulting CO2.

Rystad Energy has estimated that while grey hydrogen costs less than US$2 per kilogram on average – far less than the +$6/kg for green hydrogen produced using renewable electricity, they are all trumped by white hydrogen.

Canada-based Hydroma – currently the only producer of white hydrogen in the world – extracts the gas at an estimated cost of just $0.5/kg, which is of course well below any other source.

Rystad adds that depending on the deposit’s depth and purity, projects in Spain and Australia are aiming for a cost of about $1/kg, which further highlights the cost advantage of natural hydrogen.

White hydrogen of course rarely occurs in its purest form, but rather is often found with methane.

At a hydrogen content of 85% and minimal methane contamination, Rystad calculates the carbon intensity is around 0.4 kg CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per kg hydrogen gas including embodied emissions and hydrogen emissions.

Little wonder than there are some 40 companies were searching for natural hydrogen deposits, up from just 10 in 2020.

 

Is white hydrogen the way to clean energy?

Given its advantages, the question has to be posed. Is white hydrogen the answer to providing the world with clean energy?

Sadly, the answer is more than likely to be no. Here’s why.

While there are undoubted advantages to finding and extracting natural hydrogen, the fact remains that only one such field is currently in production, namely Hydroma’s Bourakebougou field in Mali.

Other fields have been found since then such as the giant hydrogen field in the Lorraine Basin, northeast France, though this is still at a very early stage of exploration (much less development or even production).

Fields are also believed to be present across the globe in the US, Australia, Russia and a number of European countries.

And therein lies the problem.

Before we can even use this wonder source of energy, we have to actually find it, prove it up and then develop it for production.

Taking regular gas fields as an example, the time from first discovery to first production averages about 5.5 years according to one study and that doesn’t take into account the fact that it takes an average of 17 years before peak output is achieved.

That white hydrogen reservoirs typically also contain methane is point against it being entirely clean given that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 is – albeit one that doesn’t hang around as long.

 

Still the same challenges

Transportation is also another issue.

As previously noted here, transporting hydrogen from one place to another can be an absolute pain.

While that’s not to say there are no solutions, the fact of the matter is that we still need to either adapt existing technology, such as converting hydrogen into ammonia, or developing entirely new ways of getting the hydrogen molecules from the fields to where they are needed.

These are all points that Rystad noted, saying that while white hydrogen has the potential to be a gamechanger, it is still in its infancy with unknown reserve sizes while the transportation and distribution challenges remain.

And even if these issues can be addressed, it is no excuse not to continue pursuing green hydrogen initiatives.

While green hydrogen costs are currently high, costs are still expected to come down as electrolysers become more affordable.

The technology also lends itself to small-scale developments that can be placed where they are needed, which neatly sidesteps the transportation issue.

That said, white hydrogen can and should be part of the suite of clean energy solutions that get us to net zero emissions.