The contribution of the Precambrian continental lithosphere to global H2 production


Microbial ecosystems can be sustained by hydrogen gas (H2)-producing water–rock interactions in the Earth’s subsurface and at deep ocean vents1,2,3,4. Current estimates of global H2 production from the marine lithosphere by water–rock reactions (hydration) are in the range of 1011 moles per year5,6,7,8,9. Recent explorations of saline fracture waters in the Precambrian continental subsurface have identified environments as rich in H2 as hydrothermal vents and seafloor-spreading centres1,2 and have suggested a link between dissolved H2 and the radiolytic dissociation of water10,11. However, extrapolation of a regional H2 flux based on the deep gold mines of the Witwatersrand basin in South Africa11 yields a contribution of the Precambrian lithosphere to global H2 production that was thought to be negligible (0.009 × 1011 moles per year)6. Here we present a global compilation of published and new H2 concentration data obtained from Precambrian rocks and find that the H2 production potential of the Precambrian continental lithosphere has been underestimated. We suggest that this can be explained by a lack of consideration of additional H2-producing reactions, such as serpentinization, and the absence of appropriate scaling of H2 measurements from these environments to account for the fact that Precambrian crust represents over 70 per cent of global continental crust surface area12. If H2 production via both radiolysis and hydration reactions is taken into account, our estimate of H2 production rates from the Precambrian continental lithosphere of 0.36–2.27 × 1011 moles per year is comparable to estimates from marine systems.

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Figure 1: Precambrian rocks of the continental crust.


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The preparation and execution of this work was supported by the Canada Research Chairs programme, NSERC Discovery and Accelerator grants to B.S.L. with additional partial funding from the Sloan Foundation Deep Carbon Observatory, Canadian Space Agency and National Science Foundation grant number EAR-0948659.f. We are grateful to K. Chu, A. Yang and G. S. Lollar (of the University of Toronto) for preparation of the maps and tables and to N. Sleep, H. D. Holland, J. Mungall and M. A. Hamilton for discussions on Precambrian geology and mineralogy. We also thank colleagues and supporters at the mines and underground research laboratories whose efforts resulted in the original primary publications from which a portion of this data set is compiled.

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B.S.L. designed the project and wrote the paper. B.S.L., C.J.B. and T.C.O. developed the models for H2 generation. All co-authors contributed to the interpretation and final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Barbara Sherwood Lollar.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Table 1 Volumes of mafic/ultramafic rock with H2 production potential and H2 production to depths of 1 km and 5 km
Extended Data Table 2 Estimated H2 production rates from Precambrian mafic/ultramafic rock for a 5 km volume

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Lollar, B., Onstott, T., Lacrampe-Couloume, G. et al. The contribution of the Precambrian continental lithosphere to global H2 production. Nature 516, 379–382 (2014).

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