MONTREAL,CANADA - Media OutReach - 16thAug 2019 - Asthe effects of a warming world become more tangible through extreme weatherevents and the need to shift to renewable energy becomes more urgent, onecompany in Mali is leading a revolution that could change literally everything.
Petroma,a Canadian research company headed by Malian businessman Aliou Boubacar Diallo,is producing electricity from natural hydrogen in a Malian village. It is thefirst such venture of its kind and is potentially, a game-changer for theplanet. Were the Petroma pilot plant in Bourakébougou to be replicated on anindustrial scale, it could guarantee Mali a clean, green source of electricityand even provide a surplus for export. What's more, Petroma will have led theway to the future, one of pollution-free fuels and cheap electricity. Thesuccess of the Bourakébougou initiative has already given scientists reason toexplore the promise of natural hydrogen as a viable alternative to fossilfuels.
Bothscience and art are at work in Petroma's groundbreaking venture. The science isrelatively straightforward. Hydrogen is the most energy-rich gas and isconsidered a good candidate to replace fossil fuels as the world moves towardsdecarbonisation.
The art is morecomplicated. It was a leap of faith for Diallo to launch his pilot project in2012 in Bourakébougou, 60 km north-east of the Malian capital Bamako. Localshad discovered the natural hydrogen deposit quite by chance 15 years beforePetroma set up the plant and had blocked the gas hissing from the ground. Afterthat, no one paid the region's hydrocarbon potential much attention untilDiallo and his mining exploration company decided to obtain concessions inBourakébougou. When scientists discovered abundant natural hydrogen, composedof 98 per cent hydrogen and 2 per cent methane, Diallo used his own money tofund the pilot unit in Bourakébougou and started to produce electricity.
According to Diallo,it was an intuitive move. "Natural hydrogen," he says, "is an opportunity forMali, which for the first time is a pioneer in the world in a cutting edgefield: the production of electricity without CO2 emissions." But the outlookwasn't quite as clear -- or hopeful -- back in the early 2000s, when Petromasought the Bourakébougou concession. Until 2010 there wasn't even a consensusthat natural hydrogen existed in the soil as a resource of sufficient intensityto be extracted. The most common processes used for hydrogen generationrequired the decomposition of natural gas or electrolysis of water, both ofwhich were expensive and resulted in undesirable by-products. Free hydrogen wasthought to be rare but after scientists confirmed a deposit in northern Russia,French experts Eric Deville and Alain Prinzhofer visited the country and wrotea book 'Natural Hydrogen. The Next Energy Revolution?' Last year, filmmakersShelley Tabor and John Michael Parkan's documentary 'At War With The Dinosaurs'made a powerful case for a hydrogen economy. As the most abundant element inthe universe, they argued, hydrogen is the next step in the natural evolutionof energy. And the Hydrogen Council, a global CEO-led initiative of 60leading energy, transport and industry companies to develop the hydrogeneconomy, has said hydrogen could provide almost a fifth of total energyconsumed by 2050, and cut carbon emissions by about six billion tonnes comparedto today.
IfPetroma's pilot unit in Bourakébougou seems a still small but powerfulillustration of the argument, consider what the future might hold. According torecent scientific studies, the Bourakébougou basin may have far greater amountsof hydrogen than previously thought. A paper published in the InternationalJournal of Hydrogen Energy in October 2018 by Professor Prinzhofer and his teamnoted that the hydrogen in Bourakébougou was "relatively pure".It added that the surface geochemistry of Bourakébougou indicated "the presenceof hydrogen could extend up to distances of more than 150 km". Going by thatestimate, the natural hydrogen field would be roughly 20 times greater thanprevious projections. If so, the Prinzhofer paper said, it would open "newprospects for a future industrial exploitation of hydrogen ...(and would)underscore the potential economic benefit of natural hydrogen operations in onshorecontinental areas." The "benefit" would go much beyond natural hydrogen'sobvious value as a non-polluting energy source. It is much cheaper to generateelectricity from natural hydrogen than that produced in the factory, whetherfrom fossil energy or electrolysis.
Allof which would take Mali, a country that has recently makes headlines for itstoxic mix of ethnic rivalry, jihadism and poor governance, into the big leagueof global innovators. And Petroma's Bourakébougou unit would become the leadingtest case for similar projects elsewhere, as the world struggles to transitionto clean energy.