Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

Scientists in northern France earlier this summer discovered what could be a massive deposit of the cheapest and greenest type of hydrogen.

With many Canadians focused on climate change after a year of floods, fires and droughts, Canadian researchers said the find could represent a big step towards global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we find enough hydrogen, this could solve a lot of our global warming problems,” said Queen’s University professor Philip Jessop, who holds the Canada Research Chair in green chemistry.

“The importance of this discovery is what it could mean for everybody.”

In July, Université de Lorraine scientists Philippe de Donato and Jacques Pironon discovered “white” hydrogen while searching for methane in northern-eastern France.

Hydrogen could be a key component of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and halting climate change because it could be used as a fuel source to generate electricity or potentially replace gasoline.

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Colours denote where hydrogen comes from and what amount of greenhouse gases are released while producing it. White hydrogen is pure or nearly pure hydrogen, Jessop said.

“And that’s wonderful because fossil fuels like methane, coal, oil, when we burn them, we’re burning the carbon in them to make carbon dioxide, and that causes global warming.”

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Other forms of hydrogen — green, blue or grey, for example — need to be separated from different compounds, which can be expensive and can ironically create greenhouse gases.

Pironon and de Donato weren’t available for interviews ahead of deadline, but in a statement from France’s national research agency, de Donato said “this discovery could be a big step forward in the transition towards clean, climate-friendly energy sources.”

Pironon and de Donato’s comments, published on the French National Center for Scientific Research’s site, states the hydrogen was discovered 1,100 metres deep into the ground by chemical reactions between iron-rich compounds and oxygen.

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And while they stressed they need to continue verifying the discovery and exploring gas concentrations at different depths, they said the reserve could contain 46 million tonnes of natural hydrogen — which they said was equivalent to more than half of the world’s current annual production of grey hydrogen, the most commonly-used form now.

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Grey hydrogen is separated from methane, Jessop said, through “steam reforming,” applying hot steam and a catalyst to the gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.

It releases fewer greenhouse gases than black or brown hydrogen, which comes from applying a process called steam reforming to different kinds of coal.

Blue hydrogen, which Canada produces, creates carbon from natural gas but captures the carbon emitted during that process, Jessop told Global News.

Green hydrogen is harvested from renewable energy sources and could involve separating water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen gas.

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But Jessop said but it’s also the most expensive.

This white hydrogen could be about a dollar per kilogram. That’s the estimates right now,” Jessop said, speaking from Kingston, Ont.

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“And that means it’s actually cheaper than the horrible grey or blue hydrogen.”

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The federal government committed to making Canada net-zero by 2050, with plans for hydrogen to account for 30 per cent of Canadians’ energy.

Canada’s hydrogen strategy says the country is one of the top 10 hydrogen producers in the world, making an estimated three million tonnes every year from natural gas, with Alberta producing the most.

But that comes from methane, or natural gas — meaning blue hydrogen.

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No one has discovered white hydrogen in Canada. The discovery in France is only the second sizeable deposit ever found.

“There could be some in Canada,” Jessop said.

“We just don’t know because this is too new. We’ve been ignoring this possibility until very recently.”

Bruno Pollet, director of the Institute for Hydrogen Research, said that’s a huge question facing Canada.

He said the find was very significant for the global community focused on hydrogen development but he stressed hydrogen is not a silver bullet for eliminating emissions.

“We need to speed up a bit in that area in order to really getting to a level (if) we want to reach those very ambitious targets,” he said, speaking to Canada’s hydrogen strategy.

Global News asked Canada’s energy and natural resources minister Jonathan Wilkson if the federal government was searching for white hydrogen or had been in contact with France’s government since the discovery.

A Natural Resources Canada spokesperson said the government is looking into it, saying the Geological Survey of Canada began a preliminary project to map known white hydrogen deposits in 2023-24 and that the work is ongoing.

“Canada has not held any discussions with France on the topic of naturally occurring hydrogen,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

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