Can magic of white hydrogen be game changer for FCEVs?

The energy-intensive process of producing green hydrogen (made from renewable electricity) is one obstacle hampering fuel cell vehicles’ development. But according to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, scientists are collaborating to exploit white hydrogen. Under this label, the energy carrier is sourced from underneath the earth’s crust.

Naturally occurring hydrogen can be found in the air and underground deposits. For example, in the African country of Mali, some villages already source their electricity from a generator working on white hydrogen extracted from the earth. The project is part of Hyafrica, a joint project between the African Union and the EU.

Natural formation

White hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. But it is rare in pure form. Instead, it can be found underneath the earth’s crust, where it is produced by fracking. It is renewable and, like the other colors of H2, has no emissions.

The natural formation comes from iron and water reacting under high temperatures and pressure. But also other processes, like degassing, weathering, and organic matter decomposition.

Some scientists attribute it to infinite availability, pointing to the earth’s capability of reproducing it. However, the 2022 US Geological Survey calculated that the planet made enough of the energy carrier to power the world’s needs for thousands of years. Not rare and not infinite either, but still enough for a decent time to come.

It has also been discovered in France, Turkey, Iceland, Japan, and the United States, but the trial field in Mali is now investigating if it can scale up the exploitation.

Drilling for hydrogen

This is the point where views differ. As with the other forms of hydrogen (green coming from renewable electricity like solar and wind, or red from nuclear), the cost will be the decisive parameter.

The article in Der Spiegel refers to a relatively simple installation to extract white hydrogen, at least not as complex and intensive as drilling for oil and gas. However, drilling is still needed to extract it from the earth, and it is a source of CO2, as any mining activity. The company Natural Hydrogen Energy kickstarted a project four years ago to build up expertise.

According to Beam Earth, a group of companies in the oil and gas sector refocusing on the energy transition, the next few years will be decisive for the cost viability of white hydrogen. But they predict that low-carbon hydrogen in general (most of the current production is extracted from natural gas) will rise from 10% today to 70% by the decade’s end.

Competing with fossil-fuel

Beam Earth claims that white hydrogen production does not require intensive use of energy or heavy industrial structures. It even regards the white variant as the only source capable of competing cost-wise with traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

It forecasts a price of $0,5-1,0 per kilo (€0,47-€0,94). Today, at a Belgian filling station, the price for green hydrogen is around ten euros per kilo and is not expected to fall lower than six euros in the long run.

As hydrogen, in practice, mimics the well-known procedures and infrastructure of the oil sector (pipelines, filling stations, well-drilling in this case), interest and investment from that side are extensive.


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