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Gold underfoot? B.C. could hold vast reserves of natural hydrogen

Capturing naturally occurring, renewable hydrogen not always commercially viable
A vent for flaring off hydrogen at Hydroma’s plant in Mali—the only project in the world currently producing gold hydrogen

It has been suggested there can be no net-zero energy transition without hydrogen, and federal and provincial governments in Canada have been trying to position Canada as a potential clean-hydrogen producer.

But as British Columbians recently learned, if the plan is to produce “green” hydrogen in B.C., production could require a lot more electricity than it would ultimately generate.

Green hydrogen is made by splitting apart water molecules with renewable electricity to produce hydrogen and oxygen.

A single green hydrogen and ammonia plant pitched by Fortescue in Prince George would require 1,000 megawatts (MW) of power, according to an initial project description, which is equal to 90 per cent of the Site C dam’s generating capacity (1,100 MW), or 5.5 per cent of B.C.’s current total generating capacity (18,250 MW).

Hydrogen can be made from natural gas, and B.C. has an abundance of that, but to secure hydrogen in a way that produces next to no emissions would require adding carbon capture and storage, which adds to the cost of producing so-called “blue” hydrogen.

But what if you could simply tap into the earth’s crust—where hydrogen is produced naturally—and capture it?

A number of exploration companies in the U.S., Australia and Canada are looking to do just that. It’s the latest trend in geological exploration—the hunt for geologic or “gold” hydrogen in sufficient quantities and purity to warrant commercial exploitation.

One of these companies, Denver-based Koloma, is backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the Vancouver clean-tech venture capital firm Evok Innovations. Koloma recently raised $330 million in a Series B raise this February.

In Alberta, Chapman Hydrogen and Petroleum is exploring for hydrogen in Ontario and plans to start searching for it in B.C. as well.

And in Australia, Gold Hydrogen (ASX:GHY) has done drill tests in South Australia, where the company claims to have tapped resources with high hydrogen purity levels and “strong levels” of helium.

Geologists have been aware of geologic hydrogen for decades. With the demand for hydrogen expected to soar, only recently has anyone thought it might be cheaper to tap naturally occurring hydrogen than to produce it through electrolysis.

“For decades it went unnoticed, as it was assumed it would be formed in too small amounts or diffuse away too quickly,” notes a study published in Earth-Sciences Review in 2020.

Some exploration companies now think they may be able to tap natural hydrogen seeps with high-enough concentrations to make capturing it commercially viable.

Unlike fossil fuels such as oil or natural gas, natural hydrogen is continuously produced when water dissolves iron-rich rock in the earth’s crust. So, in a sense, it’s a renewable resource that the earth just keeps producing.

So, might hydrogen be present in B.C.?

Randy Hughes, manager of energy and water for Geoscience BC, notes that the Natural Gas Atlas that Geoscience BC developed does show hydrogen and helium occurring in B.C.

“Both elements can be present, in association with existing natural gas pools, but usually as very small percentages,” Hughes said. “Geoscience BC is considering initiating research projects to assess for hydrogen and-or helium potential, but we are in the very early stages.”

“Natural hydrogen is a bit of a hot topic in exploration circles these days,” said Brad Hayes, president of Petrel Robertson Consulting and director for the Canadian Society for Evolving Energy.

For a natural hydrogen well to be worth developing, it would need to have both high flows and high concentrations of hydrogen.

“A little bit of hydrogen, even at high concentrations, is useless,” Hayes said. “If it’s going to be an economic venture, it has to compete with natural gas, so you need wells that will produce millions of cubic feet per day for long periods of time from well-characterized reservoirs.”

The only hydrogen seep in the world that is actually producing gold hydrogen for capture and use is in Mali, where the concentrations are 98 per cent.

“Those purities have not been found elsewhere,” said Denis Briere, vice-president of engineering for Chapman Hydrogen and Petroleum. The Alberta-based company provided engineering services that helped Montreal’s Hydroma to develop a hydrogen power plant that provides power to the village of Bourakébougou in Mali.

Chapman is now preparing to do exploratory work in Ontario near Timmins, where studies have suggested hydrogen in concentrations of 23 per cent may be found.

Through a process called serpentinization, hydrogen can be produced when water reacts with iron-rich rock, such as olivine. Briere said B.C. has the type of geology that might produce hydrogen—mafic rock bands that occur in the Rocky Mountains.

“It’s our intention, after we explore Ontario, to do the little ones in Alberta and then the massive ones in B.C., so it’s certainly a target area on our schedule,” Briere said.

“All through the Rocky Mountains, in the heart of B.C., you have mafic rocks that are targeted to have— in my opinion—natural hydrogen accumulations. Where you have those kind of rock types and rainwater and fractures and faults, that’s a good recipe for the chemical reactions that will produce hydrogen.”

A challenge is finding hydrogen in high-enough concentrations to make its capture commercially viable.

“Depending on how deep it is and how much pressure you have, you might have to drill a lot of wells in order to get a volume that’s commercial,” Briere said.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that about 23 million tonnes of naturally occurring hydrogen are produced each year.

The bad news is that, even if all of it could be captured, that would represent only five per cent of the 500 million tonnes of hydrogen that may be needed annually by 2050, according to an estimate by BloombergNEF.

The good news for would-be hydrogen explorers is that helium is often found alongside hydrogen. Helium is used in many high-tech applications—magnetic resonance imaging, semiconductors and quantum computing, to name a few. And the demand and price for helium has been soaring.

 “If you’re searching for hydrogen and you happen to get helium, that’s added value,” said Briere.

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