Russian scientists propose radical new way to produce hydrogen — inside a gas well




A team of Russian scientists has proposed a new way produce hydrogen inside a gas well without ever bringing carbon molecules to the surface — which if proven could eliminate the need for expensive carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.


In a laboratory experiment published in the peer-reviewed journal Fuel, researchers from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow found evidence to suggest that it could extract 45% of a reservoir’s total gas volume as hydrogen, whilst leaving carbon molecules underground.


The team from Skoltech developed a four-stage process to achieve this — using methods which it says are already in use or widely discussed for use in oil wells, hydrogen production or CCS — which it then tested in a reactor in a laboratory to simulate conditions inside a real gas reservoir.


Skoltech was established in Moscow in 2011 as part of an on-going partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However MIT terminated its link with the research institute in 2022, in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


As part of Skoltech's process, the gas well is first injected with steam and an unidentified catalyst, which is later used to separate hydrogen molecules from carbon.


Next, air or pure oxygen is injected into the well to ignite the methane, which then burns and pushes up the temperature in the reservoir to 800°C, which with the help of the pre-injected catalyst breaks down the methane into hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.


Electrical or radio frequencies could be used instead of steam to reach temperatures of more than 1,000°C if required, the researchers said.


The production of hydrogen in this process is based on the steam methane reformation method typically used in the production of grey and blue H2, except that it is carried out in the reservoir rather than in a specially engineered reformer in an industrial plant.


The final stage of Skoltech’s process envisages the hydrogen being pumped to the surface through a special membrane which allows H2 molecules to pass through, but not molecules of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, effectively leaving the carbon in the ground.


The Skoltech researchers propose labelling the new production pathway as “aqua”-coloured hydrogen.


But while the lab tests suggest a total of 45% of the total gas (methane) volume can be extracted as hydrogen, Skoltech researchers said this depends on the composition of the rock, with extraction percentages of 55% observed in tests with porous alumina, a man-made material.


Burning hydrocarbons underground raises significant safety concerns, a point that the researchers acknowledge in their study, noting that it is “essential to implement safety protocols and advanced technologies during the application of this technology”.


However, the Skoltech team also point out that each stage of the process has already been explored in different settings, such as enhanced oil recovery, where subterranean hydrocarbon combustion is widely employed in oil wells (although not gas reservoirs), while steam methane reformation technology has been used to make H2 for decades.


The use of a membrane in the extraction stage of the process, however, has only been discussed in academic papers on carbon capture and storage (CCS).


“All the stages of the process are based on well-established technologies that have not previously been adapted for hydrogen production from real gas reservoirs,” said Elena Mukhina, senior research scientist at Skoltech and the leader of the project. “We have demonstrated that our approach can help convert hydrocarbons into green fuels in the field environment with an efficiency of up to 45%. In the future, we plan to test our method in real gas fields.”


CCS technology — in which carbon is captured from fossil fuels after it has been extracted and stored permanently — has been deployed in a number of industrial applications already, and is set to be used in several blue hydrogen projects in the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Europe.


Most blue H2 developers are targeting capture rates of 95%, however this has yet to be proven at scale, and the technology has come under additional scrutiny on account of both its vast expense, as carbon storage requires significant infrastructure investment, and the methane emissions associated with gas production.


It is unclear whether the Skoltech method would also limit methane emissions, nor whether it is an economic method of producing H2, especially as the transport of hydrogen from remote locations is itself expensive and technically challenging.


The experiment was supported with a grant from the Russian Science Foundation, which is funded by the federal government.




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