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Earth's Surprising Hydrogen Reserves : Part 2

Conclusion of interview with Dr. Friedeman Freund, NASA Ames.

By Bill Moore

To Part One

The commencement of the hydrogen economy will only begin when mankind figures out how to economically extract hydrogen from the material to which it is so strongly bound here on earth. Two atoms of hydrogen make up the molecule we call water, so conceivably there are oceans of potential "fuel" to be utilized.

But truth be told, no one has figured out how to do this yet. Part of the reason is because hydrogen isn't a 'fuel' in the strictest sense of the word. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, meaning that a part of the energy that is used to extract it from water or natural gas or the magma that makes up the earth's crust, is imparted to the hydrogen in the extraction process.

In the case of the theorized hydrogen deposits that Dr. Friedeman Freund believes are trapped in the Earth's crust, the energy that "cracked" this fuel is the molten heat of the planet's core, as he explained in Part One of our interview. As the magma forms, it traps hydrogen in its crystalline lattice. As the magma cools, it releases some of the hydrogen, potentially creating "reserves" of the gas trapped in deep pockets of water.

If these pockets in fact exist, they may be very hard to get at. Dr. Freund told EV World that it simply wouldn't be economical to extract hydrogen from the mineralized rock itself. The only viable way might be to find places where it has collected, similar to the manner in which oil and natural gas are found. These potential reservoirs could be miles beneath the surface of the earth, making it very expensive to find.

One caveat to this scenario is the presumed presence of hydrogen gas inside coal mines. Freund said that mining officials have long argued that some mine explosions are not the result of methane or coal dust, but of hydrogen gas. If this is the case, some of these pockets might actually be relatively close to the surface.

But here again, trapping the gas will be difficult, he stated, perhaps more difficult than trapping methane. "It is so enormously mobile and once it gets into the atmosphere it would be very quickly lost in space." Quickly in this context means about 100 years, Freund added.

One aspect of hydrogen we don't need to worry about is its impact on global warming. It is, in Freund's view, a totally benign gas, unlike methane, huge quantities of which are locked in frozen tundra and deep on the ocean floor. Methane or natural gas is a more powerful greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide. Hydrogen would have no impact on climate change.

Another plus for hydrogen is the fact that the earth continues to replenish its supply, making it in some respects a "renewable" energy source, but only if one speaks of it in terms of geological time, meaning millions of years. Freund sees the process taking place along the Earth's subduction zones where tectonic plates slide under one another.

"Hundred kilometer-thick slabs of continental crust [are] pushed down into the mantle. A lot of water is recycled into the mantle. This water ends up, if it doesn't blow out of volcanoes, in crustal material," Freund explained.

A Limited Resource
Assuming that Freund's hydrogen reserves exist and also assuming we have the technology to economically utilize it, we asked him if we would do to hydrogen what we're doing to petroleum and natural gas, using it until we've exhausted it.

He responded that we simply don't know how quickly such reservoirs could be replenished. "But if it becomes replenished fast enough to be of interest on the time scale of our civilization, then it would be inexhaustible."

The next step Freund sees taking place is other researchers looking at his findings and seeing if they can be confirmed. He added, however, that he personally is pessimistic about the economic aspect of this crustal hydrogen. He thinks that for now the only real interest in this is a purely academic one.

Research That's Way Out There
Freund's research was never intended to find a cheap source of hydrogen. It is to better understand the mechanisms by which deep dwelling bacteria live. NASA's interest in his work is its implications for life on other worlds. If microbial life can exist on such extreme margins on Earth, then there is every reason to believe that it can also exist elsewhere.

"I am interested in what happens to the oxygen that is left behind [in the mineral] when the hydrogen moves out. That means we have excess oxygen stored in the mineral and that should have some implications for the evolution of early life. How did early life learn to deal with oxygen billions of years ago, because there is a strange observation that actually triggered my interest in this entire field."

That "strange" observation was that life's "defense" mechanism against oxygen is very, very old, on the order of 3 billion years or more.

"Three billion years ago there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere. So it triggered my thinking, 'Why did the early microbial organisms need a defense mechanism against oxygen?' The probably answer is they were constantly exposed to hydrogen peroxide when they were sitting on the surface of minerals and rocks. So, they learned how to deal with oxygen. . . " Eventually smart microbes figured out how to use it as part of their metabolic process and the rest is history, albeit very old history.

Ultimately, Freund's research may demonstrate the potential viability of microbial life on Mars and the moons of Jupiter. He pointed out that NASA is now fairly certain that life has existed on the Red Planet in the distant past from evidence found in meteors once ejected from Mars that found their way to Earth.

He said that some NASA Ames researchers are interested in how long microbes or their dormant state as spores can survive in the cold of space. "They've found some pretty surprising numbers," he said, "that would not rule out the possibility that microbes were transported from one planet to the other."

He thinks there is a very good chance that if microbes were transported to Mars by a similar meteorite event on Earth or that life evolved independently on the Red Planet that it could still exist there today, having retreated deep underground. There is now strong evidence of water just under the planet's surface that could provide a suitable habitat for this life.

This is a long way from the topic of electric vehicles, but perhaps not so far if one takes into consideration that future Martian colonists may someday use EVs and fuel cells to move around that planet. When they do, it may be in some small measure because of an experiment gone awry two decades ago in a laboratory in Germany.

Times Article Viewed: 5189
Published: 05-May-2002


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