New state geologist thinks Kansas may have the secret beneath its soil for clean-burning fuel of the future

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Jay Kalbas, the director of the Kansas Geological Survey and the state's geologist, sprays slabs of Kansas core samples to better see the geological details of the pieces.

There was a time not long ago that Jay Kalbas, Kansas’ new state geologist, had about 30 billion reasons to be excited about his job.

As a master of the subsurface, Kalbas was leading teams of geologists and scientists who were helping to find game-changing amounts of oil beneath the ocean floor. He was doing it for ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the world.

It was being done in a place that ordinary Americans may know little about but that oilmen now salivate over: Guyana. That South American country, on the edge of the Caribbean but largely unfound by the cruise ships, would bug the eyes of many American tourists. It is a land of lush rainforests, majestic waterfalls and beaches to boot.

That’s not what quickens the pulse of a Big Oil man, though. For that, look off the coast just a bit. That’s where the oil rigs are.

“It is the largest offshore exploration project on the planet,” Kalbas said. “It is huge.”

That’s where the 30 billion comes in. Kalbas estimated that when he left ExxonMobil a little more than a year ago, the company had spent approximately $30 billion on the Guyana project, which helps explains why Guyana, by some metrics, is the fastest growing economy in the world.

But Kalbas left that money machine to become the next director of the Kansas Geological Survey, an organization that the Florida native admits he knew next to nothing about before he was approached about applying for the job, which also comes with the title of state geologist.

Lawrence residents are probably familiar with the organization. After all, it has been around for 159 years, and is a part of the University of Kansas, housed in a West Campus building that is not 159 years old, but sometimes creaks like it is.

That’s the entity that beat the boom of Guyana.

How? Why? Like much in life, there is not a single reason to explain it, but there was a single resource beneath the Kansas soil that intrigued Kalbas. Kansans have known about it for years, it has been a significant export of the state for generations, but ordinary Kansans likely will be surprised by how much of it is still left.

“It is an incredibly important resource,” Kalbas said.


What, you expected the ExxonMobil guy to get excited about something else?

photo by: Shutterstock

Large blocks of salt from a mine in Hutchinson are shown in this Shutterstock photo.

‘The Secret Sauce’

Indeed, longtime Kansans probably are familiar with the state’s salty nature. Salt is a big part of the economy and history of Hutchinson. There’s an underground salt museum there, and active mining still occurs in the area.

While it is a little difficult to work into your next cocktail party conversation, Kansas does produce an awful lot of the nation’s road salt, thank you very much.

But that is just the tip of the salt-berg, so to speak.

You may have known about the large salt deposits in the Hutchinson area, but did you know about the massive amount of salt in Dodge City? Or Garden City? Or Hays? Or Liberal? Or, well, pretty much the entire southwestern quarter of Kansas.

Going as deep as 2,000 feet below the earth, Kansas has lots and lots of salt spread over hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres.

“That is a great resource for the state of Kansas,” Kalbas said.

He believes so for reasons that go far beyond salt’s ability to melt the snow on roads, or even its magic to turn a skinny potato into a french fry. What excites Kalbas — and other geologists — is salt’s storage capabilities.

When you mine salt, you create a cavern — a void in the earth that is surrounded by more salt. Salt makes for a great barrier, both for liquid and gas. Think of it like Vegas without the slot machines: What you put in that cavern is going to stay in that cavern.

That could become very important in a world that is dramatically rethinking how it not only produces energy, but also how it stores energy. It could become important soon because the country’s leaders are becoming increasingly interested in the idea of “green hydrogen.” Vehicles and industrial plants that burn hydrogen wouldn’t emit any carbon, which could be a game-changer for climate change.

If you can produce the hydrogen — extract it from water, basically — using electricity produced from wind and solar power, the country could have a nearly limitless supply of a clean-burning fuel.

But, there is a potential problem. It has been mentioned only about a gazillion times around the subject of wind and solar power.

“The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow,” Kalbas said.

That means to produce green hydrogen, you have to produce as much hydrogen as you can while the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and then be prepared to store the hydrogen until it is needed by users. It turns out that hydrogen can be stored in salt caverns.

If that is the formula for success, Kansas could be the ultimate problem solver. It has world-class wind energy potential — in Western Kansas. It has lots of bright sunshine days — in Western Kansas. It has some of the most widespread, deepest salt deposits in the country — in Western Kansas. As an added bonus, nearly everywhere you look in Western Kansas, you find a farm field in need of nitrogen fertilizer. Green hydrogen can be used to make nitrogen fertilizer.

Lots of places have some of those elements. But few — if any, Kalbas said — have them all in the same spot.

“We really kind of have the secret sauce,” he said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Core samples taken from the Kansas subsurface are shown at the Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence in November 2023.

Windows to the underworld

Let’s pause for a moment, though, and make sure we are not confused about secrets or geology. First, let it be known Kalbas is a rabid geologist.

“I have known I wanted to be a geologist since fourth grade,” said Kalbas, who also received a geology professorship at KU when he was hired. “I’m the person who doesn’t understand why everyone isn’t a geologist.”

However, Kalbas is not the Jacques Cousteau of Kansas salt reserves. In other words, it was not a secret to geologists that Kansas has a lot salt. In fact, there aren’t a lot of secrets about Kansas’ geology.

The secret might be that Kansas is one the best places in America to be a geologist.

Why? Because we have a multitude of windows to the underworld.

Those windows are better known as wells. Whether they be oil wells, gas wells or water wells, Kansas has more than 450,000 wells punched into the earth.

If you want to know another reason why Kalbas left ExxonMobil to come to the Kansas Geological Survey, look to those wells. Kalbas believes there is no other state, except Texas, that has so many wells.

The fact the holes in the ground exist is one thing. The more extraordinary part is all the samples the Kansas Geological Survey has from those wells. There is a Geological Survey building in Lawrence that has nearly 70,000 boxes filled with core samples from wells across the state. People from across the world come to see and study them.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Assistant Researcher and Librarian Olivia Jones at the Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence holds a mineral infused piece of a core sample from the Kansas subsurface.

Then there is the building in Wichita. It has more than 150,000 cuttings from wells across the state. Those cuttings are samples of rock from every 10-foot increment in a well. Kalbas is not sure there is any state with that extensive of a collection of cuttings. He describes the cuttings and core samples as “priceless,” and they also produce quite a sight in the Wichita warehouse.

“It is kind of like the final scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,'” Kalbas said, referring to the giant warehouse with artifact after artifact.

Add to the mix that the Geological Survey has a Center for Subterranean Sensing that has an expanding national reputation. It has developed new technology that can map underground voids with great detail. The survey developed it to deal with Kansas’ problem of sinkholes, but now you can find the Kansas device attached to the front of a skid-steer loader at the U.S.-Mexico border. It is used to find and map drug tunnels between the two countries. The technology was so well received that the U.S. military ended up attaching it to Humvees to monitor underground conditions in Afghanistan.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A Humvee waiting to be equipped with special subsurface monitoring technology sits in the garage of the Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence in November 2023.

Add all that up, and there are some cool reasons for a geologist to come to Kansas.

Then, there is the small matter of $1 billion. It has a magnetic quality about it as well.

In his first year on the job, Kalbas indeed has been competing for about $1 billion in federal funding. The Biden Administration likes the idea of green hydrogen so much that it announced months ago that it would provide about $7 billion in funding to seven different entities who came up with great projects to produce clean hydrogen.

KU and its partners not only put together a proposal to become a hydrogen hub. Rather, it received all the signs — including a seven-hour meeting where the U.S. Department of Energy interviewed 20 KU and state leaders — that it had a good shot of winning the money.

The issues of our lives

Spoiler alert: Not all good shots go in.

You may remember that the Journal-World reported last month that KU was not one of the seven entities selected for the hydrogen hub funding.

But Kalbas has since confirmed the KU hydrogen hub proposal was officially selected as an alternate. If one of the other seven selected projects can’t proceed, KU could be next in line for funding.

In other words, KU’s billion dollar shot just rimmed off. KU Chancellor Douglas Girod has talked about the rejection recently, and did sound a bit like a fan lamenting the oh-so-close game winner.

Girod said it was both surprising and disappointing that Kansas wasn’t selected as one of the seven awardees. He said the decision by the federal officials seemingly leaves a large hole in the center of the country when it comes to green hydrogen development.

Kansas is still interested in trying to fill it, he said.

“I think it is too good of an idea for it not to happen,” Girod said. “I think we have all come to that conclusion.”

But Girod said it certainly would happen much more quickly with federal funding. Girod said KU and its hydrogen partners — which include NextEra Energy, Evergy and the engineering firm Black & Veatch — now will have to consider asking the state of Kansas to become a partner.

The group, which is dubbed the Harvest Hydrogen Hub Coalition, may have to overcome a longtime Kansas bugaboo if it wants to win state support: water and the lack thereof in Western Kansas.

If your plan is to extract hydrogen from water, it stands to reason you’ll need a lot of water. The narrative for more than a generation has been that Western Kansas is running out of water. Kalbas is confident those concerns can be answered. Just as the Geological Survey is pointing out that Kansas has this secret resource of salt lurking beneath the surface, Kalbas believes the Geological Survey knows where the secret resource is lurking on the water front too.

It is sitting there in old file cabinet after old file cabinet in the survey’s cramped offices at 19th and Iowa streets. It is data about water levels, gleaned in part from the survey’s annual exercise of hand-measuring more than 1,400 wells in Western Kansas.

That data shows that Kansas’ water woes vary a lot from location to location. With data in hand, the survey can use advanced mathematics to accurately predict how much of a reduction in water usage is needed to hold water supplies steady in an area. Many times the results aren’t as daunting as feared. There are areas where a 20% reduction in crop irrigation would hold water levels steady. Such reductions are becoming more feasible in the world of agriculture as crop technologies improve.

Soon, the survey expects to become one of only a handful of entities in the country to begin using “airborne electromagnetic surveying” to get even more granular data about water supplies. The technology involves a specially equipped helicopter that can measure the subsurface to depths of about 500 feet.

“It is basically a CAT scan of the subsurface,” Kalbas said.

With even more detailed data, Kalbas is betting the Geological Survey will be able to identify areas where water rights can safely be purchased for hydrogen related uses. Plus, there are areas of the state that include large amounts of underground salt water that could be used for hydrogen production, if properly treated.

Like Girod, Kalbas believes the hydrogen project hasn’t run out of gas yet in Kansas. He said NextEra, the renewable energy company that is looking at doing wind and solar projects across the state, including in Douglas County, has been a great partner who really is interested in the state’s potential for renewable energy and green hydrogen.

“I see this not as a question of ‘if’ but ‘when and how,'” Kalbas said of the project. “I think the ‘why’ is already pretty clear.”

And here we are, back to that question of ‘why’ again. Perhaps you aren’t yet clear on why Kalbas left one of the most unique projects in the world and a company that is so large it has resources that most can only dream about.

The simplest answer may be because this job of state geologist and director of the state’s preeminent geological entity is a bigger job than what exists at ExxonMobil. There, he mainly was looking for oil. In Kansas, he’s seeking much bigger answers.

“The key issues in our lives will be energy and water,” Kalbas said. “That will be the same for our children and our children’s children. Why I came to the university is because the ability to do something about those two things is incredibly exciting.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Jay Kalbas, the director of the Kansas Geological Survey and the state’s geologist, sprays slabs of Kansas core samples to better see the geological details of the pieces.


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