This month, a company plans to harvest green hydrogen by lighting underground oil reservoirs on fire, according to a report by Science Mag. In the frozen plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, workers inject steam and air into Superb field, a 700-meter-thick (2,297 ft) layer of sand, which acts like a massive bottle cap to green hydrogen, and 200 million barrels of thick, black oil.
Green hydrogen and the CO2 plug
The goal isn't to pump out oil, but instead to burn it at a temperature hot enough to churn out hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide (CO2). The company behind this $3-million feat — called Proton Technologies — intends to plug the subsequently infernal well with membranes that will allow clean-burning hydrogen to pass through for harvesting, at the surface.
The CO2 — which warms the climate — will however remain buried deep underground.
"We want to launch the idea that you can get energy from petroleum resources and it can be zero carbon emissions," said Ian Gates, co-founder of the startup and a chemical engineer at the University of Calgary.
The growing market for green hydrogen
The market for green hydrogen is growing because, as a fuel for power, heat, and transportation, the byproduct is nothing but clean water. Most hydrogen is made from natural gas, via a chemical process that flings carbon into the air, or by electrolyzing water — both extremely expensive alternatives.
However, Proton Technologies believes it will cut costs by only mining oil reservoirs that drillers avoid — water-logged, or with oil that's too thick to extract.
"Someone's abandoned liability becomes our hydrogen field," said CEO Grant Strem of the money-saving strategy, who bought the Superb field for a discount: at bankruptcy.
A chemical engineer named Geoffrey Maitland, of Imperial College London, loves this concept, relating the oil reservoir as a hot, naturally-pressurized reactor. "This chemistry is well-proven at the surface," he said. "The challenge is controlling these processes several kilometers underground."
Fire flooding is a proven concept
Of course, underground burning is nothing new to the industy. Called "fire flooding," technicians pump air or oxygen into the ground, and light the fire that unleashes the pressure of gases that push the oil up wells. Back in the eighties, fire-flooding tests in a Canadian oil field called Marguerite Lake produced vast amounts of hydrogen. No one cared, of course, but it serves retroactively as proof-of-concept to Gates.
Bringing the conecpt into 2020, the biggest challenge is increasing the underground inferno to a temperature of more than 500ºC, which is "complicated and not easy to control," according to Berne Hascakir, a heavy oil reservoir engineer at Texas A&M University, College Station. "Ideally, we'd like to get there," said Gates. "But those temperatures are fine to produce meaningful amounts of hydrogen."
As the world braces for the next industrial revolution, innovators of every industry and scientific field are pooling resources to find new, more sustainable energy sources to power civilization.
But it's always more fun with a bang.