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“DOES EARTH HOLD VAST STORES of a renewable, carbon-free fuel?” queries the subhead in Eric Hand’s article “Hidden Hydrogen,” Science, February 16, 2023. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from his article.

Hand begins an extensive (seven-page) article with a fascinating tale: “In the shade of a mango tree, Mamadou Ngulo Konaré recounted the legendary event of his childhood. In 1987, well diggers had come to his village of Bourakébougou, Mali, to drill for water, but had given up on one dry borehole at a depth of 108 meters. ‘Meanwhile, wind was coming out of the hole,’ Konaré told Denis Brière, a petrophysicist and vice president at Chapman Petroleum Engineering, in 2012. When one driller peered into the hole while smoking a cigarette, the wind exploded in his face.”

Image from Science, February 17, 2023.

This wind was 98-percent hydrogen, and it still continues. In 2012, Hand says, technicians “installed a Ford engine tuned to burn hydrogen. Its exhaust was water. The engine was hooked up to a 30-kilowatt generator that gave Bourakébougou its first electrical benefits: freezers to make ice, lights for evening prayers at the mosque, and a flat-screen TV so the village chief could watch soccer games.”

These days, Hand observes, 30 wells have been drilled across the Bourakébougou field, containing “ at least 60 billion cubic meters of hydrogen, or about 5 million tons, trapped under expansive horizontal sills of ancient volcanic rock.”

What’s more, this hydrogen source is renewable: “always being filled and flowing and continuous.”

Hand says, “The people of Bourakébougou certainly hope so. The Ford engine ran until its spark plugs gave out a few years ago, and a newly installed fuel cell—quieter and more efficient—has not yet been hooked into the village grid. Bourakébougou is dark, waiting for a hydrogen future to arrive.”

Image from The Times, September 11, 2021.

The Hydrogen Rainbow. Thus far, as recounted here at SimanaitisSays, we have gray hydrogen (derived from fossil fuels; alas, releasing carbon dioxide), blue hydrogen (gray with carbon capture), and green hydrogen (produced electrolytically from renewable sources). 

This new awareness adds two more variants: Gold hydrogen (tapped from natural subsurface accumulations, such as those in the Bourakébougou field) and Orange hydrogen (stimulated by pumping water into deep source rocks, sorta fracking for hydrogen). 

Costs. Hand notes that “green hydrogen costs about $5 per kilogram, more than twice as much as gray hydrogen, which tends to track the price of natural gas. Cheaper electrolyzers will help—DOE is sponsoring a ‘moonshot’ to reach $1 per kilogram within a decade. But green hydrogen would also require a huge scale-up of renewable electricity.”

By contrast, he says, “Pumping hydrogen out of the ground should be much cheaper, which is why proponents sometimes call the natural stuff ‘gold.’ ” One researcher says extraction at the Mali site, which benefits from shallow wells and nearly pure hydrogen, could be as cheap as 50 cents per kilogram. Another researcher, part of a startup pursuing hydrogen in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, says break-even costs might end up between 50 and 70 cents. 

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see how the Earth produces this flow of hydrogen, how it’s dissipated, and how we might exploit it. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023


    March 5, 2023

    Very interesting topic! Looking forward to Part 2. When you cite costs like $1 per kg, that’s at the source, and doesn’t include the cost of distribution to the point of consumption (e.g., a fueling station for trucks or autos), right?


  2. Jack Albrecht
    March 5, 2023

    Is the water pumped in to “frac” the hydrogen poisonous like for hydraulic fracking, or is it just regular water?

    • simanaitissays
      March 5, 2023

      They seem to suggest ordinary water. See the AAAS Science article.

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