We propose a model whereby microscopic tunnels form in basalt glass in response to a natural proton flux from seawater into the glass. This flux is generated by the alteration of the glass as protons from water replace cations in the glass. In our proton gradient model, cells are gateways through which protons enter and alter the glass and through which cations leave the glass. In the process, tunnels are formed, and cells derive energy from the proton and ion fluxes. Proton flux from seawater into basalt glass would have occurred on Earth as soon as water accumulated on the surface and would have preceded biological redox catalysis. Tunnels in modern basalts are similar to tunnels in Archean basalts, which may be our earliest physical evidence of life. Proton gradients like those described in this paper certainly exist on other planetary bodies where silicate rocks are exposed to acidic to slightly alkaline water.