Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Here's an interesting article (via Rallying Point) about vast stores of Hydrogen gas (H2) found in the earth's crust. Relevant quote (from Vancouver Sun);

Now scientists at the American space agency Nasa have found that the Earth's crust is a vast natural reservoir of hydrogen which has become trapped in ancient rocks.

The team made its discovery while trying to explain how bacteria live many miles below the Earth's surface. Such bugs have no access to sunlight, forcing them to rely on another source of energy for life. Scientists suspected that hydrogen was the source.

According to Professor Friedemann Freund and colleagues at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California, the gas is produced when water molecules trapped inside molten rock break down to release hydrogen.

"In the top 20 kilometres of the Earth's crust, the conditions are right to produce a nearly inexhaustible supply of hydrogen," said Professor Freund.

(emphasis added)

Microbiology saves the world, frees us from fossil fuels!! Well, not quite. Dr. Freund goes on to throw a bit of cold H2O on this topic (Hydrogen fuel burning joke!!).

Although formidable engineering problems remain to be overcome in abstracting the gas, the sheer volume of the Earth's crust means that such a high concentration would solve the world's energy problems.

"Everyone thinks of gas and oil as the main sources, and it's very difficult to get anyone to take alternatives seriously," said Dr. David Elliott, the professor of technology policy at the Open University in London. "The possibility of vast reserves of hydrogen in the Earth's crust could change that mindset."

The low yield of energy from burning hydrogen compared to gas, however, means that vast quantities of rock would have to be mined.

Professor Freund believes that the extraction and crushing of rock to extract the trapped hydrogen is likely to be prohibitively expensive. The reaction which creates the gas takes place at depths far below those involved in oil extraction, which are typically about two miles down.

The most promising source of the hydrogen may be geological "traps" similar to those now drilled for natural gas. Professor Freund said: "One of these natural hydrogen fields is already known to exist in North America, and extends from Canada to Kansas."

Clearly, this is a long way from any application, but it seems that a long term path to energy independence may be presenting itself. One quick thought. If lots of hydrogen gas is present in every rock, why not develop methods for extracting hydrogen from rock being mined for other purposes (asphalt and cement, for example). Will it ever be cost effective? It will be a race between improving technology and (eventually) rising oil prices. People are ignoring the major, biological option. Culture these microbes, trap the gas, use it for fuel. We'll see what happens.