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Hydrogen is considered to be one of the most promising energy sources of the future. However, doubters criticize the unfavourable energy balance, as the gas has so far had to be obtained in complex and therefore expensive chemical processes, for example through electrolysis or methane reduction - processes that have so far been considered to have no alternative, as hydrogen gas is far too volatile and also easily biodegradable to form large natural reserves in the earth's crust, for example. At least that's what people thought until now.

A discovery that could change everything

Now, however, researchers have made a discovery that could change everything: The team led by Laurent Truche from the University of Grenoble-Alpes found evidence of a large underground hydrogen reservoir for the first time. For their study, they carried out gas measurements in the Bulqizë chromium mine in Albania, located around 40 kilometers northeast of Tirana. In this mine, flammable gases have already been detected several times in the lowest tunnels, which have sometimes led to explosions.

Significantly elevated hydrogen levels

When Truche and his team examined the air and several water outlets in the mine, they found significantly elevated hydrogen levels. "We observed intense outgassing in the deeper levels of the mine, especially at depths of 500 to 1,000 meters," they report. "A concentrated and intense bubble formation can be seen in water pools and rivulets." Analyses have shown that 84 percent of the gas escaping there consists of hydrogen, a further 13.2 percent is natural gas and around 2.7 percent is nitrogen.

Outgassing rates indicate great potential

But how much hydrogen is really escaping from the Bulqizë mine? To find out, the team installed a network of sensors and flow meters in the mine shafts and 38 boreholes. Truche and his team monitored the hydrogen leaks in the mine for six years. The result: "At least 200 tons of hydrogen are released in the mine every year," the scientists report. "However, these outgassing rates are minimum values based solely on what was measured at specific points - not an extrapolation to the entire volume. We only monitored a fraction of the total air escaping from the mine."

Record-breaking quantities of hydrogen gas

However, these gas quantities are already record-breaking: "The quantity far exceeds the few hydrogen outgassings from hyperalkaline sources and gas outflows documented to date," write Truche and his colleagues. What is also special about the discovery is that this large outflow consists of almost pure hydrogen gas.

Ophiolite rock identified as a possible source

This raises the question of where the hydrogen comes from. Geologists believe that the most likely source is the thick formation of ophiolite rock in which the mine is located. Ophiolites consist of oceanic crustal rock that was pushed onto the continental shelves by plate tectonics. As a result, this former ocean crust forms extensive geological formations on many land masses - including in southern Europe.

From Turkey to Slovenia

"This ophiolite belt stretches over more than 3,000 kilometers from Turkey to Slovenia," report Truche and his team. The massif, which is criss-crossed by many tectonic faults and cracks, extends up to six kilometers deep. Until now, however, such ophiolite formations - apart from chromium - were considered to be rather poor in raw materials. "The oil and gas industry has largely ignored ophiolites in the past because they were considered unsuitable for hydrocarbon extraction," explain the researchers.

Rich reservoirs of high-quality hydrogen gas

But the hydrogen in the Bulqizë mine is now changing the picture. Scientists have determined that between 5,000 and 50,000 tons of hydrogen could be stored in the ophiolite rock beneath the mine alone. This most likely comes from geochemical reactions of the minerals and has accumulated in the pores of the rock over time. "Ophiolites therefore have the potential to contain rich reservoirs of high-quality hydrogen gas," Truche and his team state.

Hydrogen extraction probably profitable

According to the researchers, this discovery could substantially change the search for new energy resources and the extraction of hydrogen. "Certain ophiolites may contain economically mineable accumulations of H2 gas," they explain. "It could be commercially viable to extract the hydrogen in such geologic contexts because the gas is trapped and concentrated in fault zones."

Original source: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), this text is based on an article by Nadja Podbregar in scinexx.de.