Scientists in northeastern France stumbled upon a potentially massive deposit of white hydrogen, a clean energy source. This discovery could revolutionize the global push towards sustainable energy solutions.

In a twist of fate, while searching for fossil fuels in northeastern France, scientists Jacques Pironon and Phillipe De Donato unearthed a discovery that could significantly bolster global efforts to combat climate change. The duo, both research directors at France’s National Centre of Scientific Research, were initially assessing methane levels in the Lorraine mining basin using a specialized probe. This probe, a first of its kind, was designed to analyze gases dissolved in underground rock formation waters.

Their probe detected hydrogen concentrations that increased with depth. At 1,250 meters, the concentration reached 20%, suggesting the existence of a vast hydrogen reservoir below. Preliminary calculations estimate this deposit might hold between 6 million and 250 million metric tons of hydrogen, potentially making it one of the largest "white hydrogen" deposits ever found.

White hydrogen, also known by names like "natural," "gold," or "geologic" hydrogen, is a naturally occurring form of hydrogen in the Earth's crust. Its significance in the climate conversation cannot be overstated. When burned, hydrogen only emits water, making it an ideal clean energy source for high-energy-demand industries like aviation, shipping, and steel-making. However, the current commercial production of hydrogen is energy-intensive and primarily reliant on fossil fuels.

Different types of hydrogen are categorized by colors. For instance, "gray" hydrogen is derived from methane gas, "brown" from coal, and "blue" hydrogen is similar to gray but with captured emissions. The most environmentally promising is "green" hydrogen, produced using renewable energy to split water. However, its production is still in its infancy and remains costly. This has shifted attention to white hydrogen, which could be a plentiful and untapped clean energy source.

Historically, the scientific community was skeptical about the existence of large natural hydrogen deposits. This skepticism was challenged when a well in Mali, which exploded in 1987 due to a 98% hydrogen concentration, was revisited in 2011. The well had been continuously producing hydrogen for over a decade. This revelation caught the attention of many, including Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist with the US Geological Survey. Ellis, who initially doubted the findings, later realized that the scientific community might have been looking in the wrong places for natural hydrogen.

Ellis estimates globally there could be tens of billions of tons of white hydrogen. This would be vastly more than the 100 million tons a year of hydrogen that is currently produced and the 500 million tons predicted to be produced annually by 2050, he said.

White hydrogen deposits have been identified globally, from the US to Russia and Australia. Some were discovered accidentally, while others were found by looking for specific landscape features. Ellis speculates that the global white hydrogen deposits could be in the tens of billions of tons, far surpassing current and projected hydrogen production.

According to CNN, this potential has piqued the interest of numerous startups. For instance, Australia's Gold Hydrogen is drilling in South Australia, targeting areas where high hydrogen concentrations were detected in the 1920s. Meanwhile, Denver-based startup Koloma has secured a whopping $91 million in investments, including from the Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

The challenge now is to transition from the excitement of discovery to commercial viability. While there's optimism, with some startups predicting commercialization in just a few years, challenges like regulatory hurdles and cost considerations remain. For instance, while white hydrogen might be cheaper than green hydrogen initially, deeper drilling could increase costs.

In the Lorraine basin, the next steps for Pironon and De Donato involve drilling down to 3,000 meters to ascertain the exact volume of white hydrogen present. If successful, it would be a poetic turn of events for the Lorraine region, once a major coal producer, to become a hub for the burgeoning white hydrogen industry.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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