Iwnetim I. Abate

Iwnetim I. Abate

Awarded in 2024

Beneath the Surface

Tapping into abundant and green natural hydrogen

Killing three birds with one stone

The search for sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources is of immense importance. And yet the solution may be under our feet: 20 million tons of hydrogen are emitted to the atmosphere from earth’s subsurface annually, split from underground water. The challenge is to find where in the world the supply is and then to apply significant resources to trapping it. This is passive and geographically limited and unpredictable. A greener, more cost-efficient, and more proactive means is the core of Iwnetim Abate’s research project. He proposes to build a system in which natural hydrogen is formed by injecting water into subsurface rocks, and a custom-built reactor induces the water reduction, collecting the emitted hydrogen gas. He calls this innovative method of hydrogen production ISNH (in-situ stimulated natural hydrogen).

Abate’s system, he says, will do more than just produce hydrogen. “The same rocks from which the hydrogen gas is extracted will also serve as ideal sites for carbon sequestration (mineralization), with a global capacity of 1000 trillion tons of CO2. We will also be able to mine essential minerals from the rocks to supply clean energy technologies such as batteries.” Abate calls this “the trifecta.”

This three-in-one reactor-based system will start out small—about the size of a microwave in the first year. By the end of the grant period, he hopes to build a reactor the size of a small suitcase. “Ultimately,” he says, “our goal is to design and develop a scalable reactor we can bring out to the field for simultaneously tapping into the trifecta from the Earth’s subsurface.”


A rock and a hard place

Abate’s project, which aims to solve three major challenges—low-cost hydrogen, CO2 removal, and efficient mining—in one, constitutes an unusual amalgamation for government funding agencies. “Even in the hydrogen space, traditional geochemistry research tends to concentrate on the natural, spontaneous processes of geological hydrogen production under natural conditions, rather than actively enhancing hydrogen production,” he says. “Currently, ISNH offers a slow reaction rate, and the synchronous CO2 sequestration and mining are yet to demonstrated, increasing the riskiness of this endeavor. This is where the Bose grant comes in and enables us to navigate the new territory I’m proposing. The complexity is huge, but we are taking a humble and creative approach to the problem; after all, we’re working with what nature has already provided.”


Green energy from brown rocks

Abate firmly believes that this research project will be transformative from an applications standpoint, offering an entirely novel strategy for low-cost hydrogen production, CO2 sequestration, and critical mineral extraction. If successful, it could have a major impact on the green energy field, benefiting producers and users of batteries and electricity. “My reactor system holds the potential to launch a new field at the nexus of material science, geoscience, data science, and chemical engineering,” he says. “I also anticipate that the proposed research will not only lay the foundation for a new thrust in my research group over the next five-plus years, it will also create a new sub-field of research at the intersection of geoscience, material science, and chemical engineering towards resource extraction and CO2 removal.”