There might be an ocean of hydrogen gas underneath the ocean

The formation of serpentinized rocks beneath the ocean may produce an abundant, free source of hydrogen (Credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer)

Hydrogen may offer a clean, alternative fuel source but it's not without its problems. Right now, hydrogen is usually obtained by expending another form of energy and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, 95 percent of the hydrogen gas made in America currently comes from natural gas reforming, which involves the use of high-temperature steam. But what if there was an abundant source of naturally-occurring hydrogen somewhere on Earth that we could suck out and put in our cars? Just such a source may lie beneath the ocean floor.

A new study conducted by researchers from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment claims to have found an abundant source of hydrogen in serpentinized rocks that form from spreading tectonic plates. Serpentinized rocks, named after their snakeskin-like surface, form when seawater is added to peridotites, the term for rocks that form the Earth's mantle. This formation process also produces hydrogen gas molecules.

Duke University researchers constructed a model that shows large quantities of hydrogen may be forming underneath the ocean floor "at a magnitude higher than widely recognized" and that these sources of free hydrogen may not be "as rare as once thought," according to the study.

Further study is needed to confirm the accuracy of the study's model and determine what happens to the hydrogen gas once it is produced in order to explore the possibilities for collecting it as a fuel source. These findings could also lead to additional discoveries about the origin and formation of life on Earth and the role that hydrogen gas plays in supporting life in environments on Earth without access to sunlight like the bottom of the ocean as well as other planets.

If the study's theories are correct, this model could lead to a viable hydrogen fuel source that doesn't require a secondary source of energy in order to produce it.

"A major benefit of this work is that it provides a testable, tectonic-based model for not only identifying where free hydrogen gas may be forming beneath the seafloor, but also at what rate, and what the total scale of this formation may be, which on a global basis is massive," says Lincoln F. Pratson, a co-author of the study who works as a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University.

Having access to such an abundant source would certainly be welcome news to hydrogen gas powered car manufacturers who need a stronger infrastructure if they want to remain competitive in the marketplace.

The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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