Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe but is not found on its own. Therefore, most hydrogen technologies isolate it from other compounds. However, white hydrogen taps into naturally-occurring hydrogen found on the planet. Learn more about white hydrogen below.
What is white hydrogen?
White hydrogen, also known as natural hydrogen, is molecular hydrogen found in geological deposits or the air. It is created through geochemical processes and released using methods like fracking (drilling technology used for recovering gas and oil from the Earth). Therefore, white hydrogen is zero emission and does not use fossil fuels in production.
How is white hydrogen produced?
Hydrogen is typically found combined with other elements (e.g., combined with oxygen to make water) and separated through processes like steam methane reforming or electrolysis. White hydrogen is already present in or on the planet and produced from various sources. These include:
- Degassing of hydrogen from the Earth’s crust (outer shell of rock) and mantle (found between the core and the crust)
- Serpentinization; the reaction of water with ultrabasic rocks (found in the Earth’s mantle)
- Contact of water with reducing agents in the Earth’s mantle;
- Weathering; deteriorating of exposed rock surface due to the interaction of water
- Decomposition of hydroxyl ions (OH−) in the structure of minerals
- Natural radiolysis of water (separation of water molecules by being exposed to ionizing nuclear radiation)
- Decomposition of organic matter
- Biological activity
There are currently no technologies to extract white hydrogen, but there are a few prospects. It can be released when fracking for gas or oil. Countries like France, Mali, the United States, and more have identified potential reservoirs for white hydrogen. There are many natural sources of but these are often difficult to assess to determine if the reservoir is worth exploiting. However, companies like Natural Hydrogen Energy see the potential of white hydrogen and are looking into techniques for drilling to find natural hydrogen reservoirs.
Benefits and drawbacks of white hydrogen technologies
One of the significant benefits of white hydrogen is that it is produced naturally and abundantly throughout the world. It is also renewable and does not rely on fossil fuels for production, nor does it emit carbon dioxide or other harmful greenhouse gasses during extraction. Therefore, white hydrogen presents an opportunity to obtain low-cost and low-carbon hydrogen on an industrial scale.
The main drawback of white hydrogen is that there are no current, foolproof technologies for extraction. This is mainly because sources of white hydrogen are challenging to assess and exploit and may result in adverse environmental impacts. For example, fracking for hydrogen may leak methane, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gasses. This can contribute to air pollution, contamination of groundwater, etc. Additionally, extraction would require the use of heavy machinery, often powered by fossil fuels, which can counteract the carbon-neutral status.
White hydrogen would also face the same challenges as other hydrogen technologies, such as storage and combustibility. Hydrogen has a high energy content by weight but low energy content by volume, and it must be compressed and stored at low temperatures. Hydrogen is also highly combustible, so if the gas comes in contact with an ignition source, the pressure can cause dangerous explosions.
Overall, there is potential for white hydrogen extraction technologies, but further research and development are needed.
How is white hydrogen used?
There are currently no technologies for exploiting white hydrogen, but theoretically, it could be used in the same ways other types of hydrogen would be used. This includes industrial applications (e.g., oil refining), rocket fuel, treating metals, producing fertilizer, processing foods, producing electricity, transportation (e.g., hydrogen buses), etc.
White hydrogen technologies can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by other hydrogen technologies. For example, gray and blue hydrogen use steam methane reforming to isolate hydrogen. This process uses natural gas, which is a finite resource. In the case of gray hydrogen, greenhouse gasses are also emitted during the process. Therefore, these technologies would have a more significant environmental impact, but they tend to be more efficient and developed than green hydrogen technologies.
Green hydrogen technologies like electrolysis are pretty efficient but still relatively new and require more development to allow for industrial production. It is also more costly than fossil fuel technologies.
Most current techniques also do not start with hydrogen. It must be isolated from other molecular compounds, so resources are needed to produce hydrogen, remove impurities, store it, transportation, etc. With white hydrogen, the hydrogen is already isolated. It just has to be extracted. Doing so would not be cheap and would likely involve the use of heavy-duty, fossil-fueled machinery, which will have an environmental impact. However, it eliminates the processes and effects of certain hydrogen production methods. It is also a renewable resource found widely across the world. It presents its own challenges, but white hydrogen has the potential to produce low-carbon hydrogen in a way that is competitive with fossil fuel and green hydrogen technologies.