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YESTERDAY, SCIENCE’S ERIC HAND described an innovative means of capturing hydrogen as a carbon-free renewable source of energy. Today in Part 2, details are gleaned from his article “Hidden Hydrogen,” Science, February 16, 2023.

How Earth Does It. A Science graphic describes three means of Earth’s hydrogen generation. “Radiolysis (1): Trace radioactive elements in rocks emit radiation that can split water. The process is slow, so ancient rocks are most likely to generate hydrogen.

Serpentinization (2): At high temperatures, water reacts with iron-rich rocks to make hydrogen. These fast and renewable reactions, called serpentinization, occur worldwide. Indeed, South Australia’s Gawler Craton is rich with iron and uranium mines favorable to both radiolysis and serpentinization.  

And Deep-seated (3): Streams of hydrogen from Earth’s core or mantle may rise along tectonic plate boundaries and faults. Iceland, on such a boundary, is known to have hydrogen flows at its hot springs and geothermal wells.”

Image by C. Bickel/Science; (data) Geoffrey Ellis/USGS from Science, February 17, 2023.

How Hydrogen is Lost. Being the smallest of elements, hydrogen seeps (4) through faults and fractures. “Weak seeps,” Science says, “might explain shallow depressions sometimes called fairy circles.” They’re also known as witch rings and water basins. 

Above, “A large fairy circle in Brazil that leaks hydrogen is curiously devoid of vegetation.” Below, hydrogen seepages might explain these, some more than a kilometer wide, in a lidar image of coastal North Carolina.” These and the following image from Science, February 17, 2023.

In shallow layers of soil and rock, microbes (5) feast on hydrogen, often producing methane. At deeper levels, hydrogen reacts (6) with rocks and gases to form water, methane, and mineral compounds. (Recall, though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, it’s also the most promiscuous.)

How We Might Extract It. Hydrogen can be tapped (7) like oil and gas—with its yield greatly enhanced by its comparatively rapid renewal. It might be extracted from easy-to-reach iron-rich rocks directly (8). Last, extraction could be enhanced (9) by means similar to fracking. “Adding carbon dioxide would sequester it from the atmosphere,” Science notes, thus “slowing climate change.”

National Sources. Hand cites, “The United States likely sits on two rich veins. One is about 10 to 20 kilometers off the Eastern Seaboard.” Indeed, Carolina bays are yet another name for fairy circles. 

“Another potential hot spot is in the Midwest,” Hand says, “where a volcanic rift failed to split North America a billion years ago. It brought iron-rich mantle rocks close to the surface in a band from Minnesota to Kansas.”

“In 2019, the startup Natural Hydrogen Energy drilled its first U.S. hydrogen well amid corn and soybean fields in Nebraska.” 

Gee, might New Madrid, Missouri, become a major energy center? ds    

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023.


    March 6, 2023

    You’ve piqued my interest here (again)!

    What are the commercial realities? Current production, demand, venture investment and so on? I can’t answer most of the questions but, net: this is potentially a HUGE game changer for the world and a real opportunity for global leadership.

    Let’s start broadly: Ernst & Young Global Limited (, without referencing geological hydrogen, says

    “The IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] is being viewed as a game changer for the US green hydrogen industry. Tax credits of up to US$3/kg for 10 years will make green hydrogen produced in the US the cheapest form of hydrogen in the world. Green hydrogen is currently being produced in the US Northwest at US$3.73/kg, so a US$3/kg tax credit would bring the cost of production for a developer to US$0.73/kg, cheaper than blue and gray hydrogen. Reaching this price would also make green steel cost competitive with steel made from fossil fuels, which would stimulate demand for green steel and could spark demand for green cement and green glass made with green hydrogen.”

    The IEA says

    [Across all types,] “Hydrogen demand reached 94 million tonnes (Mt) in 2021, … containing energy equal to about 2.5% of global final energy consumption. Most of the increase came from traditional uses in refining and industry.”

    The Science article you cited leads to an October, 2022 Geological Society of America conference and a number of sessions related to Geologic Hydrogen.

    All of this was preceded by a report in the Geological Society of London’s Geoscientist published March 2022 on the first international conference on natural hydrogen exploration, H-Nat 2021, which took place in June 2021. (And all of this building on the Malian discoveries a decade earlier.) The Geoscientist’s report (written by Philip J. Ball and Krystian Czado — Ball and Czado) looks at the cost of production of H2 via various processes (grey, blue, green and white or golden for geologically produced H2.)

    “The consensus [at H-Nat 2021] was that a price of ~$1 per kg was a key target for many natural hydrogen producers. Given these cost estimates, we could be at the start of a natural hydrogen race that could lead to a discrete pivot of the energy industry in providing low-carbon, cost-effective, natural hydrogen.”

    Which leads men back to the EY analysis of the impact of the US Inflation Reduction Act. Who’s investing where?

    The Further Reading section of Ball and Czado’s paper looks quite valuable too, at least historically.

    Thanks for the insights, Dennis!



  2. Mike B
    March 6, 2023

    Interesting. So we have another place to get H2. If “old mantle rocks” are a source, has anybody looked around N. California? Lots of patches of ultramafics (essentially, lower crustal/upper mantle material), some previously mined for asbestos and chromite. One of the larger open-pit asbestos mines, in recent times, has been receiving asbestos-containing waste, kind of an interesting recycling thing. Of course, they’re no longer attached to the mantle, having been clipped off plate edges and incorporated into a muddle of rocks crushed up against the continent. Idaho? The Snake River Plain is mostly covered with basalt, which is sometimes mantle-derived. Maybe it could be found in a lot of places, in small quantities at least.

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