Monday, May 27, 2024

In the rocky soil of Lorraine, a former coal mining region near the French-German border, scientists guided a small probe one recent day down a borehole half a mile into the earth’s crust. Frothing in the water table below was an exciting find: champagne-size bubbles that signaled a potentially mammoth cache of so-called white hydrogen, one of the cleanest-burning fuels in nature.

“Hydrogen is magical — when you burn it you release water, so there are no carbon emissions to warm the planet,” said one of the scientists, Jacques Pironon, a senior researcher and professor at the University of Lorraine. “We think we’ve uncovered one of the largest deposits of natural hydrogen anywhere in the world.”

The discovery by Mr. Pironon and another scientist, Philippe de Donato, both members of France’s respected National Center for Scientific Research, caused a sensation in France, where the government has vowed to become a European leader in clean hydrogen.

There are still many questions about the find, including exactly how big it is and how best to extract the gas. But it has added to a trail of clues elsewhere in the world that a holy grail of clean energy may be lying in the earth for the taking.

Governments and companies worldwide have been betting on hydrogen as a cornerstone in the fight against climate change. A multibillion-dollar industry, backed by billions more in subsidies and private investments, has sprung up to support the manufacturing of hydrogen, which in theory could substitute for fossil fuels to power factories, trucks, ships and planes, potentially removing around half of all planet-warming emissions.

Making commercial hydrogen involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, an endeavor that requires energy. If fossil fuels are used, the process results in greenhouse gas emissions, and the result is called gray hydrogen. Tapping renewable electricity from wind turbines and solar panels to produce what’s called green hydrogen is cleaner but more expensive.

Natural hydrogen, also called white hydrogen because of its purity, could be a game changer, scientists say, because it is a potential source of clean energy continuously generated by the earth. Hydrogen reservoirs form when heated water meets iron-rich rocks. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, just a small fraction of these deposits could provide enough clean energy for hundreds of years.

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