Researchers at the University of Lyon claim to have discovered a new energy source, by splitting hydrogen gas from water using rocks.
The new method accelerates the chemical reaction that would generally take geological timescales in nature, providing large amounts of hydrogen and the possibility of supplying us with a bountiful source of green energy.
During the reaction process, a mineral called serpentine is formed by the mineral olivine stripping one oxygen and one hydrogen atom from an H2O molecule. This then releases the spare hydrogen atom.
The process occurs in the rocks that form the ocean floors all over the world. In natural settings it is thought that the hydrogen produced either reacts with carbon to form methane, or is used by microbes that live in the rocks to sustain life deep beneath the Earth's surface.
The mineralogists at Lyon were expecting the reaction process to take weeks or months, so when they set the experiment running one afternoon they were shocked to discover that half of the olivine crystal had already reacted when they took a look at it the following morning.
Describing their finds, Dr Isabelle Daniel said:
"Serpentinisation is very common in nature and occurs along mid-ocean ridges.
"Hydrogen is measured at all the hydrothermal vents from these places and a huge amount of hydrogen and methane is produced: it is a general feature of the mid-ocean ridges. It is a major source of energy for chemo-synthetic bacteria in rocks."