Natural hydrogen exploration and production begin: a new era?

Hydrogen has been regarded as a crucial link in a decarbonized energy mix, particularly as a fuel, for several years. In light of the fact that hydrogen is currently a raw ingredient for industry (particularly fertilizers) generated from hydrocarbons or coal, the road ahead is lengthy.

Currently, all methods for the creation of decarbonized hydrogen are being investigated, and we informed you two years ago about the presence of natural hydrogen, which is produced, among other ways, by the interaction of water and subsurface rock. A relatively modest (1,400 m3/d) but steady production of this sort of gas in Mali for nearly a decade has demonstrated the existence of reservoirs and coverings. The reservoir’s pressure has never decreased, thus it is continuously filling (1).

Despite the efforts of Hydroma, the owner of this permit, production has not yet reached an industrial scale in Mali due to the country’s precarious political climate. However, the field is still being delineated, three additional reservoirs at varying depths have been discovered, and other nations have shown interest: the number of permits is rising. Desert Mountain announced a discovery in the United States in February 2022.

Exploration of natural hydrogen: an update

On Earth, natural hydrogen emissions have been known for a long time to exist in the smokestacks of oceanic ridges and volcanic zones, as well as in cratons (extremely old rocks, more than 500 million years old), where they are frequently characterized by depressions that can be mapped and researched. This has occurred in Russia(2), the United States(3), Brazil(4), and Australia(5) (5).

On the other hand, oil and mining firms possess an abundance of subsurface data and, upon learning of the existence of this new resource, went to examine it. They discovered that many oil wells contained hydrogen: the detected gas combination contained a specific percentage of hydrogen, sometimes as high as several tens of percent (up to 90 percent in Australia). A well sunk in 1930 on the York Peninsula, near Adelaide, discovered a gas containing more than 80 percent hydrogen. This was not what was desired at the time, therefore the well was sealed. There are numerous instances of this type, although the hydrogen fraction is rarely this high.

Companies have applied for exploration permits using this information and the surface indications. Many of these businesses are start-ups, while some are spin-offs of larger corporations, and a few, if infrequently, are energy giants.

However, in order to obtain a permit, the legislation must acknowledge hydrogen as a natural resource that can be studied and produced in the future. In recent years, this problem has been studied not only by geologists but also by lawyers and government officials. Not unexpectedly, the mineral-rich countries that support the extractive industries, led by the United States and Australia, have been the most reactionary.

Australia’s pioneering role in exploration

It became immediately clear that Australia has a significant natural hydrogen resource potential (6). The nation is also active in other methods of decarbonized hydrogen production (electrolysis, SMR, and coal with CO2 capture) and has delivery obligations to Japan and Korea. In January 2022, the first ship powered by liquefied hydrogen began service between Australia and Japan.

Each state is responsible for its subsoil in the federal nation of Australia. South Australia modified its subsoil law in 2021, and applications for exploration permits have increased: two permits have been granted (Gold Hydrogen will drill in 2023 and has taken over areas where hydrogen was discovered at the turn of the 20th century) and the government is evaluating more than 20 applications (see map below).

South of Perth (Western Australia), there are multiple natural hydrogen indications(7), and firms as Buru and H2EX have obtained permits. The Santos oil company, which discovered a mixture of methane, helium, and hydrogen in the Amadeus Basin in the center of the country (isolated and far from consumers), will drill three wells in 2023 to confirm the reserves (helium is a strategic gas that is very expensive – about $2,000 per kilogram – and is therefore of great interest to the global economy).

Questions are evolving…

Presently, no hydrogen or E&P conference is complete without a presentation on natural hydrogen. In May, the AAPG (American Association of Petroleum Geologists) had a session with 28 speakers on the issue in Budapest, and an AAPG dedicated just to hydrogen will be held in South America this fall. In France, H-Nat, a conference devoted to natural hydrogen that debuted in 2021, returned this year with roughly a thousand attendees. The profession is also becoming more structured with the development of EartH2 by the Avenia cluster, which brings together European underground hydrogen players.

In two years, scientific issues such as “where does the hydrogen come from underground” and “can hydrogen be a resource” have been replaced with “where do we obtain exploration permissions” and “who will be the largest producer” Things are accelerating rapidly… Given the number of wells that will be drilled in 2023, the answers to these issues will be forthcoming in a timely manner, as is typically the case outside of France, and more quickly with focused start-ups than large corporations.

Connaissances des énergies