White (Hydrogen) Lies

B
9 min readNov 13, 2023
Photo by Carlos Torres on Unsplash

Geologists, while searching for oil and gas in France, have found the biggest deposit of pure naturally occurring hydrogen yet. A source of fuel which “burns clean” and hot, and thus can “replace” fossil fuels in “hard to decarbonize” areas of the industry like steel, glass or cement manufacturing, not to mention the fact that it could be directly used to make fertilizers (ammonia) from. Heck, it might be even more abundant elsewhere than it was previously thought. “Yippee, modern civilization is saved! Or not…?”

The myth of a hydrogen economy is a tough creature to slay. It has grown multiple heads over the decades, and as you cut one off, three or four new heads pop up to replace it. Since each head has a different color it certainly looks like that we will run out of the color gamut sooner than ideas on how hydrogen could “save” modernity. First, there was Grey hydrogen which, by the way, is still the most economically viable and thus the most widespread source of this fuel. Ironically it’s demise in its role as the savior of modern civilization came from the climate movement itself, since it is made directly from methane (natural gas). “Its foul mouth reeks with CO2 and methane! Down with it.”

Good riddance. With the same sword swing the Brown/Black head started to roll as well: as it is also made with fossil fuels directly (via coal gasification). Two heads with one swing! Not bad, isn’t it? The faith that modern civilization cannot perish and must go on no matter what, however, has gave birth to a plethora of new heads. It started to look clear decades ago already that electrification alone will not be able to save modernity, especially when it comes to high heat applications or long distance transport. Somebody had to come up with something.

Instead of looking into the heart of the matter and slaying the beast once and for all, both the fossil fuel industry and green utopists alike started to cultivate the growth of new heads. Blue — pushed by Big Oil — represented the use of dubious carbon capture and storage solutions; attempting to conjure up a more palatable version of the now slain Brown/Black and Grey heads. Pink was the slowly dying nuclear business’ vain attempt to garner support for their cause. Yellow was popping up as an intermediate solution: using both fossil and “renewable” electricity to generate hydrogen. Turquoise came to be known as a quixotic way to generate H2 from fossil fuels by using high heat — but instead of releasing CO2, producing solid carbon as a result. Then there was Green, enjoying the full support of the net zero movement — i.e. using the excess electricity from “renewables” alone to generate this fuel seemingly for free.

None of the proponents of these solutions understood however that hydrogen produced by whatever means is not a resource, but a spectacular way of wasting energy. Something which was blatantly obvious decades ago already, yet the idea kept crawling back time after time, growing one rainbow colored head after the other. The fundamental issue is, that you have to invest a lot of energy and use scarce metals to separate hydrogen from its best buddy, oxygen (or carbon in case of methane). All the losses in the form of waste heat and escaped hydrogen molecules occurring during generation, compression, liquification, storage, transportation and end use just come on top as an added bonus paid to the gods of entropy. Finally, when the remaining quantity is converted back into water, roughly one quarter of all the hard earned, high cost energy invested can be turned back into useful work… It’s like sending someone $4 in exchange for $1 — time after time. Good luck maintaining a complex civilization on such a deeply negative return on energy.

It never occurred to any of the hydrogen apologists that it would be much-much more easier, cost and resource effective to use the hard earned energy directly rather than inventing arcane (and colorful) ways to waste three quarters of it before use. Sure enough, this admission would came with grappling with the loss of long distance transport, a range of materials and much more, but thinking in realistic terms and coming up with realistic solutions was never the strength of any utopists. Human progress must continue unabated.

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It is this scene into which the latest discovery of a large, naturally occurring “white” hydrogen deposit in France came. No losses during separation, no carbon emissions, no new sources of electricity needed to generate all those pesky little H2 molecules. Manna from the high Heavens, no less!

Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the United States Geological Survey, estimates that there may be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen lurking under the Earth’s surface, dwarfing the 100 million tons a year of hydrogen that is currently produced (mostly through fossil fuels).

“Most of this is almost certainly going to be in very small accumulations or very far offshore, or just too deep to actually be economic to produce,” Ellis recently told CNN. But if just 1% can be found and extracted, it would provide 500 million tons of hydrogen over the course of 200 years.

If that is true, then we can calculate with 2.5 million tons of white hydrogen per year, equivalent to roughly 100 Terawatts of pure heat energy. (Remember hydrogen is a much needed high heat energy source in steel, glass and cement making.) Sounds a lot? Well, it’s actually equal to a whopping 0.05% of our global energy use… For comparison solar panels alone “displaced” 3448 TWs of fossil energy globally in 2022, a number still dwarfed by oil (contributing 52970 TW to the global economy in the same year). So much for running the industry on white hydrogen.

How hydrogen forms underground. Source: “HIDDEN HYDROGEN: Does Earth hold vast stores of a renewable, carbon-free fuel?” from Science. Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Visit Media to see details.

But let’s assume that we could somehow throw all colors and shades of hydrogen into the mix (like H2 generated using aluminum waste, plus ALL possible geological resources, and not just the 1% mentioned above). Even if we could turn Earth itself into a hydrogen factory powered by geothermal energy as proposed by Ellis, we would still encounter a number of crippling issues:

  1. Being the smallest molecule in the known Universe, H2 leaks badly, in addition to making steel piping and storage cans brittle and prone to accidental fracture (and thus causing even more leaks).
  2. Such leaks are notoriously hard to detect and can cost months for detection crews to find in a complex piping system.
  3. In confined spaces hydrogen (an odorless, colorless gas) mixes well with oxygen and can cause massive explosions, able to rip even reinforced concrete structures apart. Think: Fukushima, Chernobyl, the Hindenburg.
  4. Hydrogen have to be chilled to extremely low temperatures to be liquefied and must be kept very-very cool to avoid excessive leaking and accidental explosions (i.e. it requires very heavy very expensive and very complex specially lined storage cans).
  5. Due to its special storage requirements it doesn’t solve the weight and cost problem of battery electric vehicles, and thus can only be used in open air industrial parks safely.
  6. It not only needs special storage but a whole new (or at least a radically refurbished) pipeline system between industrial facilities, not to mention the complete retooling of factories willing to make the switchover due to its different combustion characteristics. As of today, hydrogen uses in industry for high-temperature heat are still at the prototype stage.
  7. As hydrogen leaks into the atmosphere it actually accelerates global heating significantly by slowing down the breakdown of methane (from other sources). Should hydrogen production be scaled up it would be a major contributor to run-away climate change by magnifying the heating effect of methane seeping from underneath the melting permafrost.
  8. If burned in high heat applications (where it will be used most probably) it produces nitrous oxides (NOx) which are not only further exacerbating our climate predicament (being able to retain multiple hundred times more heat than CO2), but are also toxic for humans and the more than human world.
The power of hydrogen. On May 6, 1937, the German airship Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into flames in Lakehurst, New Jersey, while the airship was landing. NASM, Archives Division. Source

As we can see, hydrogen is not without its drawbacks, and contrary to common wisdom it does not address climate change at all, nor any of our other “problems”. I’m not saying that the issues on the list above cannot be mitigated somewhat. My quibble is that if we were scaling up this new wonder resource these problems will get much bigger much faster than any of us could imagine. As Eric Sevareid once famously quipped:

“The chief cause of problems is solutions.”

Time is also not on our side. Such a massive change, if it were possible, would require decades to complete in an era of rapidly dwindling fossil fuel and other mineral reserves. I find it highly questionable whether we have the necessary resources to make this story a lasting success and not a failed attempt made at saving an inherently unsustainable civilization. There are multitude of mineral resources needed for maintaining this complex industrial economy. Copper, and a range of rare metals needed to build microchips, “renewables” and electric grids, or potassium and phosphorous essential for feeding 8+ billion of us. These resources remain finite, no matter how we plan to power their extraction.

It’s also worth to keep in mind that as we use up all the cheap and easy to access deposits of these crucial elements, the next batch will always and inexorably cost more to extract as we have to go further, dig deeper and process ever lower quality resources. No matter what source of energy we come up with, we will need exponentially more of it year after year as our essential mineral resources keep depleting. This is a classical Red Queen race no entity in the Universe has a chance to win. Again, there is nothing personal in this — it has nothing to do with human ingenuity, you see — its just pure physics and geology.

All this, of course, must be viewed in the much greater context of our predicament. The industrial way of life has put so much burden on the living world, well beyond CO2 emissions alone, that it can no longer cope with all the poisons we dump in it. Simply put: we became too numerous and our demands grew too high for the environment to support. The hydrogen economy neither addresses this human overshoot, nor its accompanying ecological mayhem, just further aggravates both by keeping a destructive industrial society alive a little longer.

Let’s face it: even with an energy miracle a major and permanent contraction of the human ecosystem has now become inevitable. As the master resource, oil, starts its descent we will need all of our ingenuity and wisdom to navigate through one of the toughest times in human history. Instead of coming up with white lies, pertaining that our energy requirements can be met for centuries to come, we need to become realistic. The time for denial and bargaining has come to an end.

We need to think hard how we prepare our societies and communities for a deep impact caused by a fall in net energy (currently delivered by fossil fuels), how we stop wars and how we prevent our unhinged elites going nuclear. When talking about life after fossil fuels, we need to think in local economies, not requiring six continent supply chains, exotic rare metals and further ecological destruction. We need to think in radical energy conservation and low-tech, truly viable technologies. Something, which can be sustained on the basis of an emerging scavenger economy using up that massive amount of accumulated wealth we have amassed in the past centuries.

Until next time,

B

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B

A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/