UP scientists lead Mpumalanga study of natural hydrogen gas discovered under Earth’s surface

Scientists at the University of Pretoria (UP) are leading a study of natural hydrogen gas discovered under the Earth’s surface in Mpumalanga – a source of renewable energy that could contribute to the national energy budget and help address the energy shortage in South Africa.

While it is still too early to know how much of an effect the discovery could have on the country’s national energy landscape if exploited, the scientists have envisaged small “stand-alone” generation units (powering generators with a capacity of about 20 kilowatts) for local domestic or minor industrial use. However, recent stories in Europe suggest that some natural hydrogen resources might be much bigger than originally thought.

“There might well be an untapped renewable, non-polluting energy supply that has gone unnoticed for centuries, right under our noses!” said structural geologist Professor Adam Bumby. “Only in the past few years have geoscientists started to measure natural hydrogen flux out of the Earth, and we have already demonstrated that this is the case in parts of Mpumalanga. Our local scientists, with their geological and geophysical knowledge of the potential source rocks, combined with the expertise of our European partners, are proving to be a successful team.”

Prof Bumby added that they are in the process of identifying potential source sites, after which they will be able to quantify estimated resources.

“The role of this project is to indicate the presence of hydrogen, and how it could be incorporated into the national energy budget if it were to be exploited.”

This discovery was made as part of the HyAfrica project undertaken by a consortium of partners within the European Union (EU) and African Union (AU).

Recent samples taken in Mpumalanga currently fall under the natural/“white” hydrogen category. Follow-up field trips and isotopic comparisons of all the hydrogen samples collected will provide a clearer understanding of the geological controls responsible for generating hydrogen in Mpumalanga. According to Prof Bumby, it is difficult to estimate at this point how long it will take to properly exploit any decent reserves of hydrogen.

He added that hydrogen is considered a fuel of the future due to it emitting zero emissions.

“It can be used, for instance, in car engines instead of petrol, producing water as the exhaust gas. Hydrogen is the most common element in the solar system, but sadly most of it is either sitting or burning in the sun. Hydrogen can also be synthesised from water using electrolysis, but it requires a lot of energy to split water.”

The energy to produce hydrogen fuel by electrolysis of water can be sourced from renewables (such as solar energy or wind turbines) and is called “green” hydrogen. Alternatively, the energy needed for the split can be sourced by burning fossil fuels (“grey” hydrogen), but that produces carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. If that greenhouse gas is captured and stored (sequestered), it’s called “blue” hydrogen.

Natural hydrogen (or “white” hydrogen) is different because the energy needed to break the hydrogen from water is provided by geological processes through chemical reactions in rocks driven by high temperatures at depth in the Earth’s crust (serpentinisation). The decay of radioactive elements in some minerals deep within the Earth’s crust can also result in hydrogen being split off from water (radiolysis).

“Because these reactions and processes are occurring relentlessly in some geological environments, the hydrogen that is produced by these natural processes can be considered renewable,” Prof Bumby explains. “Because hydrogen is a very light element, it readily rises towards the Earth’s surface, where it either gets trapped under impermeable rock layers or leaks up to the surface. It is these leaks of natural hydrogen that we are trying to trace in Mpumalanga for this part of the HyAfrica project.”

Prof Bumby added that environmentalists and climate change activists will also be interested in the potential impact of the development of natural hydrogen as a commodity in South Africa. 

“In other areas where hydrogen has been exploited in the past, the extraction of natural hydrogen typically requires drilling a borehole, and a motor engine adapted to run on hydrogen,” he said. “No further invasive procedures are envisioned. Burning hydrogen in engines does not produce any carbon dioxide – or any other greenhouse gas – that contributes to global warming. The only combustion product is water. If the hydrogen is not exploited, it seeps from the Earth into the atmosphere, reacts with oxygen and still forms water.”

The project was tasked with looking for sources of natural hydrogen in Africa, and exploring the possibility of using natural hydrogen for stand-alone renewable energy solutions. The partners fall under the umbrella of LEAP-RE (Long-term Joint EU-AU Research and Innovation Partnership on Renewable Energy). The AU partners are in Morocco, Togo, South Africa and Mozambique.

The South African scientific partners in the HyAfrica consortium are Prof Bumby and Dr Ansie Smit of UP’s Department of Geology, Prof David Walwyn of the UP Graduate School of Technology Management (GSTM), along with Samson Masango and Prof Napoleon Hammond of the University of Limpopo. Other consortium partners are the Université Mohammed Premier, Oujda (Morocco); University of Lomé (Togo); Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique); Converge!/University of Évora (Portugal); the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics (Germany); and the Fraunhofer Institute (Germany). The South African investigations are funded through the South African National Energy Development Institute

“There remains a great deal of work ahead for the team to consider necessary regulation and legislation associated with exploitation of these resources,” Prof Bumby said. “The later working groups of the HyAfrica project will consider those economic and political aspects.”

GSTM’s Prof Walwyn, who has expertise in the challenges of industrial development in South Africa and the development of green hydrogen as a potential energy source, forms part of this working group. The groups kicked off their work during the second LEAP-RE HyAfrica General Assembly held at UP recently.

Click on the infographic in the sidebar to learn interesting facts about hydrogen and how it's formed underground. Click on the gallery to see what small scale power stations in Mali look like as well as how geologists measure hydrogen underground. 

Prof Adam Bumby, Dr Ansie Smit, Prof David Walwyn

November 29, 2023

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  • Professor Adam Bumby

    Professor Adam Bumby completed his undergraduate and honours degrees at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His MSc and PhD were completed at the University of Pretoria (UP). He has been at the University for almost 28 years – as a member of staff for the past 20 years – and have been in involved in continuous research throughout that time.

    His research, he says, is multidisciplinary. “We are dealing with early-stage identification of the presence and source of hydrogen.”

    Prof Bumby adds that the research team at UP is leading local investigations that are part of an international consortium of European Union and African Union countries.

    “Other parts of this research involving UP staff are considering the social, economic and political aspects within the country implicated by the presence of hydrogen.”

    The geology aspect of the research falls within Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. The more social, economic and political aspects are being handled by Emeritus Professor David Walwyn of the Graduate School of Technology Management in the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Information Technology.

    The project began in September 2022 and is a milestone in the research agenda of those involved.

    “We began collecting field data in Mpumalanga in June 2023,” Prof Bumby explains. “A notable highlight was finding an area near Hendrina where we recorded natural hydrogen in the soil beyond the detection limits of our hydrogen meter (10 000 ppm). The ‘normal’ background reading of hydrogen in soils and the atmosphere is 0.5 ppm. Clearly, this implies a significant increase in hydrogen from the rocks below that area.”

    The research consortium was the brainchild of Prof Julio Carneiro of the University of Evora in Portugal who also leads the research. He has been instrumental in establishing UP’s interest in this topic. Prof Carneiro has an extensive background in hydrogeology, carbon sequestration and geo-energy.

    While Prof Bumby admires Prof Carneiro’s inspired idea in putting together the hydrogen research project, his academic role model is his MSc and PhD supervisor – Emeritus Professor Patrick Eriksson who had a long career at UP and excelled in teaching and research.

    “He had an amazing ability to pull information from a wide range of sources to form cohesive, holistic theories of how the early Earth might have developed,” Prof Bumby says.

    Considering the scale of this project, his hope is to identify areas where significant amounts of hydrogen are being stored below the surface in rocks.

    “Going forward, it would be great if these reserves could be exploited by drilling shallow boreholes and low-cost mini power stations installed to burn the hydrogen,” Prof Bumby says.

    This research matters because if sufficient hydrogen stored in layers of strata can be found and exploited, this could contribute to national energy reserves, at least within a local/small-scale setting.

    “Natural hydrogen is considered to be renewable in that it is constantly produced in certain geological environments below Earth’s surface, and produces few pollutants when it burns,” he explains. “If natural hydrogen reaches the surface in sufficient concentrations, it can be collected; it burns explosively, so it can be used to power generators or used in hydrogen fuel cells. The only emission from fuel cells is water vapour. Therefore, it has the potential to be a source of cheap, non-polluting energy for small-scale electricity production and so contribute to the betterment of the world.”

    His advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in his field is that geology is not just about rocks – it is about energy, the environment and solving some of the world’s pressing problems, including energy and pollution.

    As for his hobbies, Prof Bumby says he enjoys spending time mountaineering, and restoring vintage cars and motorbikes. “Though,” he adds “I now have a young family, and that takes up all of my spare time!”

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  • Dr Ansie Smit

    Dr Ansie Smit completed her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Pretoria (UP). She has been involved in research at UP since 2009. Initially, she was primarily involved in the UP Natural Hazard Centre and is now a senior lecturer in the Department of Geology.

    She says she is doing research at UP because it is one of the leading research universities in South Africa and has a strong focus on sustainability and real-world impact.

    Her research focuses on developing statistical solutions for applied problems, especially in earth sciences. Current research projects include the spatial and spatio-temporal modelling of earth processes. This research improves our understanding of these processes and natural disasters, and how we can use this knowledge to better society.

    Dr Smit is part of three research teams. The first is a collaboration between various UP departments focusing on the development of hail hazard maps for South Africa. These maps can aid agricultural and insurance industries in planning and developing financial instruments in instances of extreme hail events.

    The second team, StatSNetSA, looks at peer development and support of doctoral supervisors in South Africa. This follows from a shortage of statisticians in academia and the exceptionally strong pull from industry. A guiding rubric for doctoral supervision applicable to all South African universities has been developed and is in the process of being published.

    “We hold regular workshops with early-career, mid-career and late-stage academics in South Africa with a strong focus on peer support and capacity building,” Dr Smit says. “A new focus is also on the role that large language models (such as ChatGPT) can play in doctoral supervision.”

    As part of a new research project, she is concentrating on statistical and geostatistical modelling to track the occurrence of natural hydrogen in Mpumalanga. The research forms part of a larger multidisciplinary project that is focused on early-stage identification of the presence and source of natural hydrogen and determining the geological controls on its occurrence. The project aims to find natural hydrogen sources in Africa (South Africa, Mozambique, Morocco and Togo) that could lead to new, easily accessible, clean and renewable energy sources. UP is a leading South African partner, as is the University of Limpopo, in an international consortium of European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) countries. The project is being funded by LEAP-RE (Long-term Joint EU-AU Research and Innovation Partnership on Renewable Energy).

    The investigation of the potential geological controls for natural hydrogen involves various faculties and includes several working groups. The research ranges from identifying and understanding these geological controls to research on local energy systems, and the economics of standalone and off-grid systems in remote or small communities. The aim is to provide policy and regulatory analysis and guidelines for the implementation of regional/national roadmaps for a consistent strategy for natural hydrogen exploitation. Emeritus Professor David Walwyn of the Graduate School of Technology Management in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology leads UP’s involvement in this aspect of the project.

    The natural hydrogen project started in September 2022, and currently field data is being collected in the Hendrina area in Mpumalanga. A notable highlight was the recording of natural hydrogen in the soil beyond the detection limits of the hydrogen meter (10 000 ppm), which is significantly higher than the expected background reading of hydrogen in soils and the atmosphere of 0.5 ppm. This and other high measurements imply a significant presence of hydrogen in that area.

    Dr Smit enjoys participating in cross-disciplinary research projects that have real-world implications. Statistical modelling combined with geological and physical analyses of natural Earth processes opens up new and exciting research avenues, and can contribute to South Africa’s national goals and the Sustainability Development Goals.

    She encourages school learners or undergraduates who are interested in her field to always keep an open mind to see where these types of opportunities present themselves.

    “It allows you to connect to other research fields that you may find interesting with your main specialisation to solve complex problems of our time,” she says.

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  • Professor David Walwyn

    Professor Walwyn completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town and has been doing research at the University of Pretoria (UP) for the past 12 years.

    He says UP affords him the ideal environment in which to undertake his research.

    “I have access to all the library resources, a cohort of students to assist with the work, colleagues with whom I can interact and collaborate, a well-managed infrastructure to support my applications for funding, and all the common research administration functions.”

    Prof Walwyn is a transdisciplinary scholar who is focused on two important research areas: localisation of manufacturing in the health and energy sectors, and transformation of socio-technical systems, especially systems for mobility and electricity. For this work, he uses a combination of techno-economics, policy mix theory and transitions theory to identify turning points for localisation and transformation.

    The focus of his research is reaching four important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG 7 (Affordable, Reliable, Sustainable and Modern Energy for all), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 13 (Women, Youth and Local and Marginalised Communities) and SDG 4 (Quality Education). In essence, the attainment of a net-zero global economy is both an imperative and a massive challenge.

    “Through my research, I hope to make a small contribution to this broader goal,” he says. “The big issue in this work is the ‘theory of change’. My perspective of the latter is that change will only happen when we can effectively confront and challenge the legacy and pathway dependencies of the present socio-technical regimes.”

    Prof Walwyn says he research “is rather just small contributions to the national discourse on energy systems and how these can be transformed”. However, he adds, his research matters because we have no choice but “to make the energy transition”.

    Within his academic discipline, he is part of two research teams, one of which is working on white hydrogen and the other on the development of hardware/software for vehicle-to-grid systems.

    He says his research has been inspired by the work of Prof Mark Swilling and Prof Johan Schot. Prof Swilling is the co-director of the Centre for Sustainability Transitions at Stellenbosch University, and writes about sustainability and the importance of Ukama or kincentric ecology. Prof Schot is professor of global comparative history and sustainability transitions at the Centre for Global Challenges at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and writes about deep transition and changing societal meta-values.

    Prof Walwyn adds that he admires all the major contributors to his field, including people such as Bengt-Ake Lundvall, an emeritus professor of economics at Aalborg University in Denmark, and Frank Geels, a professor of system innovation and sustainability at the University of Manchester in the UK.

    Prof Walwyn dreams of a rapidly growing renewable energy sector that will reduce South Africa’s carbon footprint, empower local communities and create green jobs.

    He urges school learners or undergraduates who are interested in his field to read, study and understand. Knowledge and critical analysis are essential in the 21st century.

    “The world needs you – you just need to discover for yourself how one can transform agency and capability into action. Follow your passion, but remain evidence-based.”

    As far as hobbies go, Prof Walwyn says he has many diverse interests. 

    “I play the flute. I do trail runs, road runs, mountain bike races and road bike events. I hike, walk, swim and surf. And I knit, mainly socks, leg warmers and beanies. If you are ever in need, just ask me!”

    Prof Walwyn’s research focus areas

    A sustainability transition is defined as “the long-term, multi-dimensional and fundamental transformation processes through which established socio-technical systems shift to more sustainable modes of production and consumption”. Examples of such transitions include changes from non-renewable (such as coal and gas) to renewable (such as wind and solar) sources of electrical energy, from internal combustion engines to fuel cell electric vehicles and the adoption of green building practices. 

    These transitions are essential if the international agreements on climate change, such as COP21, are to be met, simultaneous to the elimination of poverty and inequality (SDGs 1 and 10). Although techno-economics is only one of several drivers of such transitions, it is a sine qua non in developing countries.  Prof  Walwyn’s work has looked at how changes in the techno-economics of energy systems are supporting or preventing energy transitions.

    In the area of health sector localisation, he works on vaccine and pharmaceutical manufacturing. The work is particularly important in the context of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. His initiative in 2002 to maintain local technological capability in the vaccine value chain is now being recognised.          

    In all this work, he has attempted to understand the reasons why science, technology and innovation do, or do not, lead to economic development, and has used a number of theoretical frameworks in his research, including technological innovation systems, innovation policy mix, niche experimentation, technological capability, historical institutionalism, sustainability transitions and neo-classical economics. 

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