MIT News reports on the process of extracting hydrogen from rocks. - ParrotGPT

It’s commonly thought that the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, exists mainly alongside other elements — with oxygen in water, for example, and with carbon in methane. But naturally occurring underground pockets of pure hydrogen are punching holes in that notion — and generating attention as a potentially unlimited source of carbon-free power.

One interested party is the U.S. Department of Energy, which last month awarded $20 million in research grants to 18 teams from laboratories, universities, and private companies to develop technologies that can lead to cheap, clean fuel from the subsurface.

Geologic hydrogen, as it’s known, is produced when water reacts with iron-rich rocks, causing the iron to oxidize. One of the grant recipients, MIT Assistant Professor Iwnetim Abate’s research group, will use its $1.3 million grant to determine the ideal conditions for producing hydrogen underground — considering factors such as catalysts to initiate the chemical reaction, temperature, pressure, and pH levels. The goal is to improve efficiency for large-scale production, meeting global energy needs at a competitive cost.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are potentially billions of tons of geologic hydrogen buried in the Earth’s crust. Accumulations have been discovered worldwide, and a slew of startups are searching for extractable deposits. Abate is looking to jump-start the natural hydrogen production process, implementing “proactive” approaches that involve stimulating production and harvesting the gas.

“We aim to optimize the reaction parameters to make the reaction faster and produce hydrogen in an economically feasible manner,” says Abate, the Chipman Development Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). Abate’s research centers on designing materials and technologies for the renewable energy transition, including next-generation batteries and novel chemical methods for energy storage.

Sparking innovation

Interest in geologic hydrogen is growing at a time when governments worldwide are seeking carbon-free energy alternatives to oil and gas. In December, French President Emmanuel Macron said his government would provide funding to explore natural hydrogen. And in February, government and private sector witnesses briefed U.S. lawmakers on opportunities to extract hydrogen from the ground.

Today commercial hydrogen is manufactured at $2 a kilogram, mostly for fertilizer and chemical and steel production, but most methods involve burning fossil fuels, which release Earth-heating carbon. “Green hydrogen,” produced with renewable energy, is promising, but at $7 per kilogram, it’s expensive.

“If you get hydrogen at a dollar a kilo, it’s competitive with natural gas on an energy-price basis,” says Douglas Wicks, a program director at Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), the Department of Energy organization leading the geologic hydrogen grant program.

Recipients of the ARPA-E grants include Colorado School of Mines, Texas Tech University, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, plus private companies including Koloma, a hydrogen production startup that has received funding from Amazon and Bill Gates. The projects themselves are diverse, ranging from applying industrial oil and gas methods for hydrogen production and extraction to developing models to understand hydrogen formation in rocks. The purpose: to address questions in what Wicks calls a “total white space”.

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