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22-7. Application of noble gas geochemistry to understanding geologic hydrogen and helium resources

We are seeking a Mendenhall Fellow to investigate the geochemistry of noble gases in near subsurface environments to develop techniques for exploration of natural hydrogen and helium resources. 

Description of the Research Opportunity

There is a growing recognition among geoscientists that the potential for geologic accumulations of natural hydrogen has not been adequately investigated.  If natural hydrogen resources can be economically developed, this could be an important new source of clean energy.  The USGS is currently working on identifying the most prospective regions in the US for geologic hydrogen resources.  Development of this potential resource will require new strategies and techniques to inform exploration activities.  Early exploration efforts for petroleum resources were guided by observations of hydrocarbon seeps at the Earth’s surface, and this approach may be effective in hydrogen exploration.  However, the use of seep observations in hydrogen exploration is complicated by the fact that there are multiple potential sources of natural hydrogen, and many are probably not related to significant accumulations of hydrogen.  Advanced geochemical analyses likely will be required to identify diagnostic geochemical signatures of hydrogen accumulations. 

One promising area for investigation is the application of noble gas geochemistry to geologic hydrogen exploration.  The noble gases — helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon — have proven valuable in understanding a variety of geologic problems due to their chemical inertness, their association with a variety of different radioactive decay schemes, and their mass-dependent variation in physical properties (e.g., diffusivity and solubility in liquids).  The isotopic compositions of noble gases are particularly useful for age dating and determining fractionation temperatures in groundwaters and component analysis of fluid contributions, mantle, deep crust, and atmospheric components.  While the radiogenic mechanisms that generate noble gases can produce hydrogen via water radiolysis, there are many other natural processes that also generate hydrogen in the subsurface (e.g., water reduction by iron-rich minerals).  Given the mobility of gases in geologic settings, gases encountered in specific locations are commonly mixtures of gases from different sources and with variable genetic histories.  The presence of noble gases in association with hydrogen can be employed as tracers for a variety of distinct geologic environments and processes that have affected a gas mixture.  Importantly, the co-occurrence of hydrogen and noble gases is commonly reported in geologic settings. 

The noble gas, helium, is of particular interest because it is a valuable commodity.  It is critical for a wide array of industrial and analytical applications including electronics and semiconductor manufacturing, welding, magnetic resonance imaging, and other analytical, engineering, and laboratory uses.  Helium is generally produced as a byproduct of conventional natural gas and the US is currently the leading producer of helium in the world.  However, US helium production is in decline due to decreases in conventional natural gas production related to reserve depletion.  By 2026, US helium production is projected to fall to approximately 35% of the total global production.  In the future, helium supplies from the other major producing countries in the world (Russia, Qatar, and Algeria) may not always be reliable, highlighting the need to identify additional domestic helium resources.  The development of a noble-gas based technique for hydrogen exploration could have the added benefit of improving helium exploration efforts, which could help identify new helium resources for the future. 

This Mendenhall Fellowship opportunity seeks to advance our understanding of the association of hydrogen and noble gases in near subsurface environments.  In particular, we are seeking a fellow to help develop a method (or methods) for determining diagnostic geochemical signatures of subsurface accumulations of hydrogen or helium using near subsurface observations.  While the focus of this research will be on the potential application to natural resource exploration, the results of this work may well have important implications for other related science questions (e.g., the formation of critical minerals, geothermal resource characterization, etc.). 

Proposed research may include theoretical, experimental, and field-based studies, or combinations of these approaches.  General experimental and analytical laboratory facilities are available in the laboratories of the Energy and Mineral Resources Programs of the USGS located in the Denver Federal Center.  Analytical capabilities for determination of the molecular and stable isotopic composition of major (non-noble) gas components, including hydrogen, in geologic gases are available in the Petroleum Geochemistry Research Laboratory.  Additionally, the capability to analyze the molecular and isotopic composition of noble gases resides in the USGS Noble Gas Geochemistry Laboratory.  The results of this project are expected to improve our understanding of the association of hydrogen and noble gases in the Earth and to help promote more efficient exploration and development of natural hydrogen and helium resources in the US. 

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisors early in the application process to discuss project ideas. 


Possible Duty Station(s)

Lakewood, Colorado 


Areas of PhD 

Geology, geochemistry, chemistry, engineering or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered). 



Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications:  Research Geologist, Research Chemical Engineer, Research Chemist, Research Engineer

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)