Hydrogen will play an important role in the quest to decarbonize the world’s economy by substituting fossil fuels. In addition to the development of hydrogen generation technologies, the energy industry will need to increase hydrogen storage capacity to facilitate the development of a robust hydrogen economy. The required hydrogen storage capacity will be much larger than current hydrogen and natural gas storage capacities. There are several geological storage options for hydrogen that include depleted hydrocarbon fields and aquifers, where more research is needed until the feasibility of storing hydrogen at scale is proved. Here, we investigate the buoyant flow of H2 (as a working gas) vs. CO2 (as a cushion gas) separately in a representative storage aquifer. Buoyant flow can affect the maximum storage, capillary trapping, likelihood of leakage, and deliverability of aquifer-stored hydrogen.

After building a 2D geological reservoir model initially filled with saline water, we ran numerical simulations to determine how hydrogen placed at the bottom of an aquifer might rise through the water column. The Leverett j-function is used to generate heterogeneous capillary entry pressure fields that correlate with porosity and permeability fields. Hydrogen viscosities were based on the Jossi et al. correlation, and the density was modeled using the Peng-Robinson equation of state. We then simulated several scenarios to assess flow during short- (annually) and long- (several years) term storage. For comparison purposes, we also ran CO2 storage simulations using the same geological model but with CO2-brine-rock properties collected from the literature.

For a representative storage aquifer (323 K, 15.7 MPa, and mean permeability of 200 md), significant fingering occurred as the hydrogen rose through the saline water column. The hydrogen experienced more buoyant flow and created flow paths with increased fingering when compared with CO2. Individual hydrogen fingers are thinner than the CO2 fingers in the simulations, and the tips of hydrogen finger fronts propagated upward roughly twice as fast as the CO2 front for a typical set of heterogeneity indicators (Dykstra-Parson’s coefficient Vdp = 0.80, and dimensionless autocorrelation length λDx = 2).

The implications of buoyant flow for hydrogen in saline aquifers include an increased threat of leakage, more residual trapping of hydrogen, and, therefore, the need to focus more on the heterogeneity and lateral correlation behavior of the repository. If hydrogen penetrates the caprock of an aquifer, it will leak faster than CO2 and generate more vertical flow pathways. We identify possible depositional environments for clastic aquifers that would offer suitable characteristics for storage.

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