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Huge hydrogen stores found below Earth's crust.
April 15, 2002 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Huge hydrogen stores found below Earth's crust. "Scientists have discovered vast quantities of hydrogen gas, widely regarded as the most promising alternative to today's dwindling stocks of fossil fuels, lying beneath the Earth's crust. The discovery has stunned energy experts, who believe that it could provide virtually limitless supplies of clean fuel for cars, homes and industry." This discovery sounds too good to be true (for us energy-hungry humans that is, bad news for the bacteria.)
posted by homunculus (29 comments total)

 
fill my new ride up with a tank of that kansas crude!
posted by specialk420 at 11:34 AM on April 15, 2002


The discovery has stunned energy experts, who believe that it could provide virtually limitless supplies of clean fuel for cars, homes and industry.

This almost sounds like an April Fool opening line but who am I to say the glass if half empty? Hell. I'm all for it. These December summers in Chicago are wreaking havoc on my skin.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:40 AM on April 15, 2002


I wonder how this news would have been received in a White House run by green-leaning Gore and not oil rich Bush?

somehow i fear that because of who is running the place, this discovery will only be seriously discussed on places like this.
posted by tsarfan at 12:17 PM on April 15, 2002


Why would you want to extract hydrogen from rocks when you can already get it from water ? Or are they talking about pure hydrogen 'lakes' down there ?
posted by zeoslap at 12:24 PM on April 15, 2002


Because you can't extract hyrdogen from water without spending more energy than you get from the process. That's why we don't have water engines yet. It sounds to me like they are referring to "lakes".
posted by starvingartist at 12:35 PM on April 15, 2002


Too good to be true? Nah:

Professor Freund believes that the extraction and crushing of rock to extract the trapped hydrogen is likely to be prohibitively expensive.

The low yield of energy from burning hydrogen compared to gas, however, means that vast quantities of rock would have to be mined. From depths greater than two miles, no less.

I'm no engineer, but this doesn't sound all that useful -- it's not in liquid form, so you can't just drill a pipe down there and start pumping as you can with oil: you actually have to dig a mine all the way down and get at it manually. Once you've dug a hole that deep, you may as well skip the hydrogen and go for straight geothermal energy, no?
posted by ook at 12:46 PM on April 15, 2002


Ook, you have to keep reading.

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."
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:50 PM on April 15, 2002


Well, who knows. It remains to be seen if we can get the hydrogen out using less energy then it would take to dig up, haul to the surface, and then crush up/disolve/whatever to extract the hydrogen. I suppose it would be nice if it worked, though :P
posted by delmoi at 12:51 PM on April 15, 2002


I wonder how this news would have been received in a White House run by green-leaning Gore and not oil rich Bush?


Well, it's going to take longer then 8 years for anything to happen. Besides, Who do you think is going to be doing the drilling to get this stuff out of the ground? Thats right, the coal and oil companies. In fact, they are going to make a fortuine esp if they can dig the stuff up from here rather then the mid-east.
posted by delmoi at 12:53 PM on April 15, 2002


"One of these natural hydrogen fields is already known to exist in North America, and extends from Canada to Kansas." This means in the next fifty years, man will build the second Grand Canyon from scratch. How quaint. We can resolve our energy problems and save the tourist industry in one fell swoop.

Robert Matthews must have a sexual relationship with his thesaurus: "virtually limitless... nearly inexhaustible... extraordinarily high... sheer volume... high concentration... vast reserves... vast quantities..." These are all fancy ways of saying, "nearly infinite." Do you know what "nearly infinite" means? Finite. It means finite. There is no such thing as something that's almost infinite. There's either enough hydrogen on the Earth to last forever, or there is not.

Based on the rate we've been going through our fossil fuels, I'd predict we have enough hydrogen to get us through another two or three centuries, and then we'd be looking for something else to burn. Of course by the time we're done taking all the hydrogen out of the planet, Earth will look like a flattened beer can, or a half eaten decaying apple. It will be deflated.

I don't think the offered link explains the situation properly enough. We already know we can draw hydrogen from sea water, but we don't because it's too expensive and environmentally questionable. How is digging up earth for H any better? We have to go down miles to get to oil and gas. Now mining for hydrogen in rocks could mean digging up to ten times as far down as we already have been. Sounds like it'd be cheaper to use sea water - which ain't cheap.

This is like swallowing a horse to catch the fly. I completely fail to see how this is a better solution. Besides, isn't hydrogen just a little bit more dangerous to use as a fuel source than oil and gas? I mean oil & gas just catch on fire, and occasionally explode a little bit. Hydrogen tends to just explode. Big. We're just sucking the planet dry of resources like a baby bottle. When we are finished squeezing all the juice out of this big rock, do we expect God will just supply us with another planet? He'll probably tell us that planet's don't just grow on trees y'know.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:55 PM on April 15, 2002


I hope this discovery pans out, but infrastructure costs must be kept in mind. The existing natural gas distribution system cannot be easily swtiched over to H2 delivery. Why?
H2 interacts with the metal in the pipelines, making it brittle and easly shattered. And because the H2 molecule is so much smaller than natural gas molecules (CH3, moslty), the pipeline would leak like a sieve through an almost infinate number tiny cracks. And when you talk using H2 in vehicles, the safety concerns multiply. Ever smelled gas when you fuel your car - that same quantity of H2 would cause a lot of trouble in your lungs.
All are solvable issues, but the expense of solving them will be non-trivial, and take many years.
But it'll be worth it - I want my emissions-free H2ONDA ASAP!
posted by Jos Bleau at 1:07 PM on April 15, 2002


[monju_bosatsu]: Ook, you have to keep reading.

Oh, c'mon. I saw the paragraph you're referring to, of course. I wish there were more detail given about what, specifically, these "traps" are, but tend to think that if there were a lake of liquid hydrogen stretching from Kansas to Canada we'd have noticed it a long time ago. So my best assumption is that they're talking about a strata of rock that has higher-than-usual concentrations of hydrogen; helpful, yes, but without actual numbers there's no way to judge whether this will ever be more efficient than solar, geothermal, fusion, or any of the other energy sources we might turn to when we run out of gas. In general, with this sort of report, I tend to pay more attention to the quotes from the scientist than to the hopefuls and hypotheticals added by the journalist.

I've been trying to find more details about this; I've found a three year old paper by the same Freund quoted in the article, but can't find anything more up-to-date. (It's a bit over my head, but does confirm that any underground hydrogen is in "solid solution", not liquid form.) Still searching; I'll report back if I find anything more current.
posted by ook at 1:11 PM on April 15, 2002


Besides, isn't hydrogen just a little bit more dangerous to use as a fuel source than oil and gas? I mean oil & gas just catch on fire, and occasionally explode a little bit. Hydrogen tends to just explode.

Actually, hydrogen is safer. Gasoline fumes are heavier than air, so they tend to settle to the ground in explosive clouds. Hydrogen is lighter than air, so it dissipates. This means a hydrogen leak is much less dangerous than a gasoline leak. The question of the potential of the fuel to explode is more about whether it's mixed well with oxygen or not. A mixture of gasoline fumes in air is damn explosive--the Hindenburg explosion would have been just as massive if it had been filled with gasoline vapor. Remember also that gasoline is a nasty toxin, and contains a nice soup of carcinogens--hydrogen has a huge saftey edge in that regard. Also, hydrogen combustion produces only water, rather than the dangerous (in a long-term environmental respect) mix of sulfates, nitroxides, and carbon dioxide produced by burning gas.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:13 PM on April 15, 2002


"Do you know what "nearly infinite" means? Finite. It means finite. There is no such thing as something that's almost infinite. There's either enough hydrogen on the Earth to last forever, or there is not."

So you see no difference between enough hydrogen to meet the earth's energy needs for, say, 3 hours, and enough to meet the earth's energy needs for 10,000 years? Both are "finite," yet I see a great deal of difference between the two.

(Oh, and when you come up with an infinite energy source, you'll let us know, won't you? Until then we're stuck with a choice of paltry finite energy sources.)

"Based on the rate we've been going through our fossil fuels, I'd predict we have enough hydrogen to get us through another two or three centuries, and then we'd be looking for something else to burn. "

Is this based on any evidence, or is it purely speculation on your part?

"I don't think the offered link explains the situation properly enough. We already know we can draw hydrogen from sea water, but we don't because it's too expensive and environmentally questionable. How is digging up earth for H any better? "

The difference is that the hydrogen trapped in the earth's crust is hydrogen gas--all we have to do is extract it and burn it. (Disclaimer: "burn" it is an oversimplification; methods such as hydrogen fuel cells carry out the same basic reaction-- hydrogen+oxygen->water --but in a more controlled manner.) On the other hand, it takes energy to extract hydrogen from water, and since getting energy out of hydrogen involves converting it back to water, the first law of thermodynamics (a.k.a. conservation of energy) prevents us from getting out any more energy than it took to produce the hydrogen from water in the first place.

"Besides, isn't hydrogen just a little bit more dangerous to use as a fuel source than oil and gas? I mean oil & gas just catch on fire, and occasionally explode a little bit. Hydrogen tends to just explode."

This is a potential problem, yes, but not an insurmountable one. Cars already exist which run on natural gas, and although natural gas is also highly explosive, these cars run safely.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:18 PM on April 15, 2002


Here we go: much more informative summary of the process. if I'm reading this correctly, the hydrogen would be gaseous, but in diffuse bubbles distributed throughout the rock strata, probably not in large easily-mined pockets. (Note from my earlier link that these same rocks will also contain carbon monoxide... so there's that to deal with, somehow.)

Jos Bleau, re your point, note the last paragraph -- and it's likely that rather than everybody switching over to Chevy Hindenburgs, we'd probably keep the hydrogen confined to large power plants and drive electric cars. Still a massive and expensive change in infrastructure, but if we're gonna run out of oil -- and we are, eventually -- we don't have a lot of choice about that.
posted by ook at 1:28 PM on April 15, 2002


I think its more likely that we'll turn to a new source of 'old' hyrdocarbons before we switch to H2 - the ice that burns - methane hydrates. They apear to be just about everwhere on the bottom of the oceans - by some estimates they contain 1000 times the energy content of all other hydrocarbons (coal, oil gas, etc.) that exist (or did exist until we burned them) elsewhere on the earth.

No one knows how to 'harvest' them yet, or what damage might be done to the environment in the process, but a lot of folks are investing heavily in research.
posted by Jos Bleau at 1:43 PM on April 15, 2002


The Telegraph article is a little better. Its diagram makes the impracticality of actually drilling for this stuff any time soon pretty lucid.

Also - when they talk about traps, they do mean gas and not fluid. All these people talk about hydrogen lakes must come from pretty interesting planets. Natural gas traps are literally that - pockets of natural gas stuck above pockets of subsurface oil.

Lastly, as far as the "infinite" nitpick goes - this could be an infinite source, in the sense of being a neverending source, if the overall production rate is higher than our consumption rate will ever be. This is an ongoing natural process. I imagine once we actually have the technology to get down to this stuff, we'll have figured out how to extract it from rock without distrubing the rock. E.g. by some process of heating the rock while it's in place.
posted by badstone at 2:14 PM on April 15, 2002


We could just ride bicycles more. Ooh, gotta go, the tv show about lesbian sex on channel 4 has just started..."my bean was just jumping about!" brilliant.
posted by rikabel at 2:46 PM on April 15, 2002


All these people talk about hydrogen lakes must come from pretty interesting planets.

Well, I do happen to come from a pretty interesting planet... but good point. I blame the redheaded girl who sat next to me in chemistry class. I learned nothing that year. Too distracted.

Just like rikabel, apparently.
posted by ook at 5:02 PM on April 15, 2002


You know, if you don't plan on moving, and are wealthy enough, geothermal power has existed for quite a while now. In boston, buildings get together to tap it, like Trinity Church designed by HH Richardson. Although to be strict about it, you can only drill for geothermal in certain places. But if you're lucky enough to be close to these areas....

Ook: mine had black hair. Plus I just suck at chemistry.
posted by Settle at 7:24 PM on April 15, 2002


"as much as 1,000 litres of hydrogen may be trapped in each cubic metre of rock"

Wait a minute. A cubic meter is 100 cm. X 100 cm. X 100 cm. equals 1,000,000 cubic centimeters. A liter is 1000 ccs so 1000 liters is 1,000,000 cubic centimeters, the same as a cubic meter. So is he saying there is a cubic meter of gas in a cubic meter of rock? That doesn't sound right.

What he must mean is that if you take the hydrogen gas in a cubic meter of rock at a depth of 20 km where he says you would find this gas and bring it to the surface, it will expand to 1000 liters at atmospheric pressure.

Let's do a quick back-of-the-envelope check to see if this is reasonable. Scuba divers know that pressure increases with depth. They know that for every 10 meters (approx. 33 feet) pressure increases by one atmosphere. But we are talking about rock not water. Rock is about 3 times as dense as water (that's why it doesn't float) so in rock pressure increases by 3 atmospheres each 10 meters deep. The article says the hydrogen is about 20 km deep or 20,000 meters. This is 2000 times 10 meters which means the pressure is 2000 times 3 atmospheres. So the pressure at 20 km is around 6000 atmospheres. The volume of a gas decreases proportionately with pressure so at 20 km the 1000 liters of hydrogen occupies only 1/6000 of its volume at the surface, that is, 1/6 of a liter.

So the bottom line is that he is talking about a wine glassful of highly pressurized hydrogen gas in the pores of a rock a little bigger than a dishwasher. Seems plausible.

If you could get it to the surface, that would be a lot of gas.
posted by JackFlash at 9:40 PM on April 15, 2002


This just in:

The Vice President has released a report which concludes that, by far, the easiest way to access this newly discovered hydrogen supply is by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Area.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:00 PM on April 15, 2002


The Vice President has released a report which concludes that, by far, the easiest way to access this newly discovered hydrogen supply is by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Area.

WRONG. The easiest way is to build a pipeline across Afghanistan.
posted by Neale at 11:06 PM on April 15, 2002


[y2karl, who's unable to post to this thread - see MetaTalk - has asked me to post this comment of his:]

A mixture of gasoline fumes in air is damn explosive--the Hindenburg explosion would have been just as massive if it had been filled with gasoline vapor.

Having used the picture of the flaming Hindenburg more than once in these pages, mr_roboto, I found out an interesting detail about it's famous immolation, as recounted here--the airship was coated with a doping: The compound, a layer of iron oxide covered with coats of cellulose butyrate acetate mixed with powdered aluminum, is very similar to a mixture used to power solid fuel rockets. is the pertinent sentence. Whether it was ignited by static electricity or sabotage seems as yet undetermined.

I first heard this while trapped in the car of a friend who's an Art Bell fan--his guest that day was a man who thinks, that with a Manhattan project size investment, the US could be on a hydrogen economy in 5 years using only off the shelf technology in the form of windmills generating the electricity necessary for separating it from water during off-peak hours.

He added, in passing reference to the Hindenburg disaster, that of the thirty odd deaths, all but a handful were people jumping in panic before the cabin hit the tarmac. I have yet to ascertain the truth of that.

[by y2karl]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:25 AM on April 16, 2002


My problem is that, with all the mining of hydrogen, and burning of it, we will create LOTS of H2O. This will have to go somewhere. We will raise ocean levels, which will be blamed on global warming (but will be directly a result of environmental actions!), thus necessitating a complete shift to hydrogen fuels, perpetuating the cycle.

But, on a positive side, the oceans will be less salty.
posted by dwivian at 10:28 AM on April 16, 2002


Yes, dwivian, this would create LOTS of H2O, but there's LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of H2O in the ocean.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I don't think the increased H2O would be a significant problem:

Annual world energy usage: about 4*10^17 (400 quadrillion) Btu in 1999, projected to be about 6*10^17 (600 quadrillion) Btu in 2020. (1)

1 Btu=1.055 kJ (2). Since these are just rough estimates, let's just call it even and say annual world energy usage is 6*10^17 kJ.

Standard enthalpy of formation of water: -241.826 kJ/mol as a gas, -285.830 kJ/mol as a liquid. (3) If you simply burn hydrogen, you get gaseous H2O, so let's call that -240kJ/mol. (This just means that the production of 1 mole of water from hydrogen and oxygen releases 240kJ. The negative sign is just a convention to indicate energy released; when energy must be added to form a compound from its component elements, the enthalpy of formation is positive).

So, if we convert the entire world to using hydrogen as an energy source, supplying the planet with energy for one year would entail the production of 6*10^17kJ/(240kJ/mol) = 2.5*10^15 (2.5 quadrillion) mol water.

Molar weight of water = 18 grams, so 2.5*10^15 mol water = 4.5*10^16 grams water. Density water = 1 g/cm^3, so this is 4.5*10^16 cm^3, or 4.5*10^10 m^3 (45 billion cubic meters).

Wow, that is a lot of water! But how would it affect ocean levels? Let's say the earth is a sphere 8000 miles in diameter, and about 3/4 of the earth is covered by ocean. Area of the oceans' surface (calculation left as an exercise to the reader) is thus around 3.9*10^14 m^2. (390 trillion square meters)

Thus, if the entire planet's energy needs were generated by hydrogen, and all of the resulting water dumped in the oceans, this would increase ocean level by (4.5*10^10 m^3)/(3.9*10^14 m^2) = about 1.2*10^-4 m each year--0.12 millimeters, or about one two-hundredth of an inch. If we did this for two hundred years, we'd raise ocean levels one inch in all that time.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:09 PM on April 16, 2002


Thanks, DA! I appreciate all the efforts you went through. I learned that my best interaction with a mole is to put a stake through it when it eats my carrots, not to multiply it by anyone named Jules. *grin*

I feel better. It seemed a weird question, though -- so, would you think that the lack of other emissions might result in a DROP in ocean levels, as we reduce other gases in the atmosphere?
posted by dwivian at 7:55 AM on April 17, 2002


Ah, that's a much more difficult question. No one can say for sure just how much CO2 emissions affect world temperature (too many other variables affect world temperature for a good analysis), or exactly how much changes in world temperature affect polar ice levels (and thus ocean levels), so that question can't be addressed through an analysis like I did above. Anything I could say would be wild speculation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:32 AM on April 17, 2002


i'm in love with DevilsAdvocate
posted by tolkhan at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2002


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