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Hydrogen Future Could Offer Sustainable Energy and Economic Growth for Appalachia

The nation’s transition to a sustainable and clean-energy future heavily focuses on the use of hydrogen as an energy source. To expedite a hydrogen-fueled future, the Biden administration recently announced more than $7 billion in federal funding to expand hydrogen infrastructure on a nationwide scale.

Rohit Pandey, assistant professor of mining and minerals engineering at Virginia Tech, has received $1.5 million in research funding to help facilitate the underground storage of hydrogen in the Appalachian basin. This project will not only help the nation achieve energy independence, but it will develop a vital industry of the future while expanding jobs in regions affected by the downturn in coal.

“Hydrogen is pretty versatile,” said Pandey. “Usability wise, it can be used pretty much anywhere where natural gas can, such as with home heating, transportation, etc. The benefit of running cars and trucks on hydrogen instead of electricity is that you are not only producing water as a product of combustion, but you also don’t have to spend an hour at a charging station.”

Within the next decade, the Appalachian basin is expected to become the nation’s leading producer of “blue” hydrogen, a form that is produced from methane with permanently captured carbon dixoide byproducts and is generally considered the most cost effective. Yet, this goal hinges on a comprehensive development across the entire energy lifecycle, including hydrogen production, transportation, utilization, and notably, storage. Appalachia’s distinctive advantage lies in its abundance of depleted oil and gas reservoirs, which theoretically could be repurposed for the temporary, economical, and secure storage of surplus hydrogen and facilitate a reliable supply-chain. However, storing hydrogen in this manner requires validation through both laboratory and field-scale testing, which will constitute the primary thrust of Pandey’s research for the next two years.

“The benefit of using underground gas fields is twofold,” said Pandey. “First, it reduces the carbon footprint associated with having to create new subsurface storage operations, which would be the case for alternative approaches such as underground salt caverns and saline aquifers, which lack sufficient wellhead infrastructure to meet the expected hydrogen storage volumes.” Additionally, the presence of existing wellheads will drive improvements to on-the-ground infrastructure, greatly reducing the risk of methane leakage prevalent in currently abandoned sites.

Pandey’s work is part of the Department of Energy-funded project, Assessment of subsurface hydrogen storage in depleted gas fields of Appalachia. He and his interdisciplinary team, including co-principal investigators Biswarup MukhopadhyayNino Ripepi, and Bahareh Nojabaei and researchers from the Kentucky Geological Survey and Advanced Resources International, will examine three major depleted gas reservoirs in Appalachia that have the potential to serve as large-volume, long-term storage solutions for hydrogen. The proposed storage locations are in regions with the greatest concentrations of disadvantaged communities in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia, as found in the Department of Energy’s Disadvantaged Community Reporter mapping tool.

Graduate student Stasio Gauza collects formation water in sterile containers that will be used for microbial metabolmic analyses. Photo by Rohit Pandey for Virginia Tech.

To determine the viability of hydrogen storage in depleted gas reservoirs, Pandey’s team will study the feasibility of storing hydrogen in reservoirs previously holding natural gas.

“The geologic formations can be biochemically reactive with hydrogen, and given its small molecular size, hydrogen is prone to leakage via caprocks, faults, fractures, and wellbores when stored underground,” said Pandey. “These pathways can potentially lead to irrecoverable loss of the stored hydrogen, a techno-economic risk that needs to be understood and quantified.”

“I have two major goals in this project,” Pandey said. “Firstly, we want to pinpoint locations in Appalachia where underground hydrogen storage can be feasibly implemented. It’s impossible to evaluate risks without thoroughly examining the scientific particulars of each potential site. Secondly, we aim to develop a rigorous and repeatable methodology for evaluating underground hydrogen storage sites, designed for broad adoption among researchers to enhance risk assessment for stakeholders. Our hope is that these research efforts will directly benefit Appalachia and provide a valuable process for other researchers to leverage globally.”

By Angelo Biviano and Florence Gonsalves

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