Hidden hydrogen might be a way to save the world

3 mins
17 Mar 2023
Hidden hydrogen might be a way to save the world

An accidental discovery in the '80s might have given us a way to save the world

image Iana Kunitsa / GETTY IMAGES

words Rhys Thomas

Many wonderful things are discovered by accident: Post-It Notes, chocolate chip cookies, penicillin, the microwave, plastic. All of them came by chance and changed life as we know it. Sometimes it’s an experiment gone wrong, other times it’s noticing the potential of something that others have dismissed. In this case, it’s the latter. The discovery might just fix the world’s energy crisis.

The story starts in Bourakébougou, Mali. It’s 1987, and children are playing near the mango trees. A team of people turn up to start digging a well, the children watch. Then something unexplainable happens. The well starts releasing air, it’s invisible and it doesn’t smell, but there is a gust. Someone decided to look into the well to see what was going on, a lit cigarette in his mouth, and whoosh. Flames everywhere. Nobody died, although the man with the cigarette was burned. The fire couldn't be contained for weeks, but eventually the team managed to cover the hole so the flame was no longer there.
20 years later, a Malian businessman who was the chair of an oil and gas company began to look for oil and gas in the region of the country in which included Bourakébougou. Five years after that, in 2012, his technicians determined the wind coming from that place where there could have been a well, was 98% hydrogen.

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How did we discover this?

Well, by accident, someone was smoking a cig. The reason this discovery was so shocking, though, is because many people didn’t think hydrogen existed on earth. A group of scientists were able to humblebrag though, as they’ve been suggesting for a while that its naturally-occurring existence was very likely. They explained that water and rock react deep in the Earth, and that this continuously generates hydrogen. Sometimes it gets trapped, but in other cases it will find its way to the surface – just not typically in the same places oil does.

How is hydrogen going to save the world?

Hydrogen is considered a clean and carbon-free fuel, the issue is we’ve always assumed it had to be manufactured by using fossil fuels (bad, obviously) or renewable energy (expensive). But now it seems there might be a chance we can just extract it from the ground, if there’s enough of it down there. And according to reports, there’s a chance there’s enough of the H down there to keep us going for thousands of years if we can figure out how to access it.

How can we turn hydrogen in the ground into electricity?

In Bourakébougou, shortly after discovering the gas was hydrogen, they used a car engine to burn the fuel and linked the engine to a generator. It was the first time electricity had been accessible in Bourakébougou. They used it to light the mosque in the evenings, to power ice-making freezers, and more. Of course other, more advanced methods can be used too, but this method simply involves reacting the hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity and water.

Technically, hydrogen might also be renewable! Unlike oil and other natural gasses, which can take millions of years to form, it seems the planet is constantly producing hydrogen, so where there are supplies, they don’t deplete. We still need to figure out whether the volume is there, and accessible, to power the planet, but signs suggest it might well be. The other challenges come with transporting hydrogen, but it’s hopeful.

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