Can you explore for hydrogen?

THE common wisdom says hydrogen cannot be explored for only created, however two recent finds and work by the Geological Survey of Western Australia suggests otherwise.

EnergyQuest’s quarterly report looks at prospects for native hydrogen onshore Australia, and finds there could be great potential, offering far lower costs than making it from either natural gas with carbon capture and storage or renewable energy and water.

The nascent industry could be at the point “Colonel” Edwin Drake was in Pennsylvania in 1859 when his strike began the oil industry, it says,

There is one hydrogen discovery in Mali, Africa, but work by the Geological Survey of Western Australia suggests there could be potential for commercial discoveries in Australia thanks to the great age of the salt systems of up to 800 million years that seal in both hydrogen and helium that would otherwise escape thanks to their miniscule weight.

Santos actually made a helium/hydrogen find seven years ago at Mt Kitty in the Northern Territory.

Four years after that Bougou-1 in Mali was drilled and flowed hydrogen at 98% purity. A dozen more wells followed, confirming an eight kilometre-sized field, which has an active hydrogen kitchen replenishing the field. A coup has prevented further study.

“Australia has potentially the best natural hydrogen plays and explorers should start by talking to GSWA and tapping into its high-quality data and research,” EQ said.

There is only one source of helium in Australia: Santos’ declining Bayu-Undan field, now actually under Timor-Leste jurisdiction since 2019, that heads to a BOC-owned plant in Darwin and once this is gone Australia will be dependent on imports.

Helium, while rare, only 160cu.m of it are produced a year, can be explored for more readily than hydrogen.

There are two stocks on the ASX alone with a focus –Renergen which is also developing onshore natural gas in South Africa, and pure play Blue Star in the US – and there are hopes for helium prospectivity in the Amadeus and Georgina basins in the Northern Territory. Much of what is found on Earth is colocated with uranium deposits as it, and thorium, create the gas via decay.

“Find basement rocks rich in these elements under a salt seal and you can expect to find helium. This is exactly what Santos did when it drilled the Mt Kitty well in the Amadeus Basin in 2014,” it said.

This flowed at 9% concentrations of helium, far higher than Bayu Undan’s 0.1% and well above international averages. However the remarkable part was that it also flowed 11% hydrogen.

The actual volumes were low as “there was no effective reservoir” but EQ thinks it is likely there could be more across the basin, especially as that thick salt system spreads Amadeus Basin in the NT and possibly into WA.

The system is also found in the Officer Basin in WA and SA. Global Oil & Gas has mentioned the potential for hydrogen and helium exploration in passing earlier this year.

“The extraordinary results at Mt Kitty raise a big question about whether onshore petroleum explorers should be applying their skills to drill for native hydrogen,” EQ said.

This would be far lower cost than making either the blue or green stuff –as current economics stand — and “dull the attacks of climate change activists on oil and gas companies”.

EQ quotes a year-old article from Total geochemist Eric Gaucher who suggests the industry, only recent hydrogen converts, is now taking the idea of exploring for the zero-carbon gas seriously.

“The current state of exploration resembles the start of oil exploration. Industry built its knowledge by starting with studies of surface seeps, which take us to known source rocks,” it says.

There are three types of source rocks: ultrabasic rocks, iron-rich cratons and uranium-rich rocks, with natural radioactivity thought to trigger radiolysis (dissociation) of water molecules.

Meanwhile ” there is nowhere better than Australia for thick, widespread and impermeable salt seals of the kind needed to trap lighter-than-air gases such as helium and hydrogen”.

Mark Tilly
9 March 2021
Energy News Bulletin

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