HyNAT: our Vision & Mission

In the 20th century the world’s economy grew by a factor of 20, with the population increasing four-fold, and half of it now living in cities. This five-fold increase of per capita GDP was made possible by abundant supplies of coal, oil and gas. Easily available energy is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for economic growth, innovation and increasing standards of living.

However, the reliance on fossil fuels in the 20th century also had severe unintended consequences: climate change due to carbon emissions, and a very uneven distribution of wealth between emerging and developed countries due to the centralized nature of fossil-fuel economies.

The 21rst century faces the challenge of doubling the world’s increasingly urbanized population by 2100 in a sustainable manner. None of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be met by our traditional fossil-fuel based economies that require expensive highly centralized production facilities that are very far from the urban centers and countries where energy is consumed.

Our planet needs a paradigm shift: abundant supplies of renewable green energy, produced economically in a decentralized manner, to ensure that economic value is created in a sustainable manner and remains on a local level. This is what the energy transition for the 21rst century must look like.

At HyNAT we are convinced that a hydrogen economy, based on the use of natural hydrogen, is an integral aspect of this paradigm shift.

HyNAT is part of the Aaqius group that has been innovating for over 15 years to successfully create disruptive low-CO2 businesses that sustain local ecosystems and local economies. And for over a decade Aaqius has developed key links in the hydrogen value chain: financing (AALPS), energy resources (natural hydrogen, HyNAT), products (fuel-cell powertrains, Aaqius), and services (energy & mobility as a service, STOR-H). We innovate globally and create sustainable value locally.

Natural hydrogen: the state-of-the art

At HyNAT we bring several decades of experience in the exploration and discovery of natural resources; and we have been early innovators in the field of natural hydrogen.
Three key facts drive our interest in natural hydrogen, it is cheap, ubiquitous… and renewable:

  • We know that natural hydrogen seems to be much cheaper to produce than current methods (steam methane reforming, water electrolysis) with an estimated cost below 1 US $/kg.
  • The technical and scientific knowledge of the natural hydrogen reservoir is limited, due to its recent discovery as a potential energy source. However, when looked for, undoubtedly, hydrogen is ubiquitous on the planet Earth (Zgonnik, 2020).
  • Associated with several other key geological observations, it appears that natural hydrogen is renewable, i.e., has a generation timing compatible with human life (between 10 and 100 years).

Knowing where to look for natural hydrogen is essential. Some guidelines can be defined:

  • Setting apart mid-oceanic ridge’s hydrogen plumes (Whelan and Craig, 1979), which are not considered as valuable because of their context (except perhaps in rare onshore occurrences as Iceland), large volumes of natural hydrogen have been recorded in ophiolites (remnants of oceanic crusts in mountain chains) and in geologically old continental areas. The latter appear today as the most promising natural settings in terms of accessibility, coupled to areas of local consumption. Moreover, their location in sedimentary rocks gives more opportunities to find reservoir rocks with decent porosity and permeability.
  • A hydrogen geological system per se, includes a kitchen or a source of generation associated to various physico-chemical processes that are the focus of many developing theories (Sherwood-Lollar et al., 2007; Marcaillou et al., 2011; Zgonnik, 2020; Truche et al., 2020, Arrouvel and Prinzhofer, 2021). Furthermore, it is likely created at several kilometers below ground level, with yet unknown migration paths, possibly some associated with shallower transient accumulations (the most interesting part for our purpose). It ends with the evidence of important surface seeps (Larin et al., 2014; Prinzhofer et al., 2019; Moretti et al., 2020).
  • The common geological understanding is that each of these elements, found naturally in continental areas, are linked to Neoproterozoic formations (550-1000 million years). From that observation it is straightforward to assume that very reducing conditions of the Earth’s atmosphere at that time allowed the formation of reduced sedimentary rocks, conducive for hydrogen generation and preservation. In fact, these rocks and geological formations are largely represented in extensive continental cratons of South and North America, Africa and Australia. Beyond the geological formation chronology, one of the first and most simple
    guideline today for exploration are “fairy circles”, which depict ground level circular depressions of diameter ranging from 100m to 2 km and which are associated with significant hydrogen emissions in the order of 1 000 to 40 000 m3/day (Moretti et al., 2021). The hydrogen rich circular emanations are well identified and distinguished from other known circular depressions visible at the Earth surface (dolines, pingos, etc.). When the soil rheology allows the formation of such topological structures, they remain as key hydrogen indicators and mapping for natural hydrogen exploration.
  • It appears also that geologically, two chemical elements seem mandatory for hydrogen geological generation: iron and sulfur. These two elements present the advantage to be abundant in the Earth crust, with chemical properties allowing various degrees of oxidation. As hydrogen gas is a highly reduced molecule, these various potential states of Redox conditions for iron and sulfur open various paths for hydrogen generation (Arrouvel and Prinzhofer, 2021) and may be studied through geochemical cycles of iron and sulfur.

Mali: a first proof-of-concept

One example of interest, Mali, located in the African continent, has been enlightening as a pioneer country to test the use of natural hydrogen to produce energy on a local scale. It may be considered as a key reference of an already developed industrial project for natural hydrogen exploitation and economic feasibility and serves as an example for other potential industrial scale projects.

Hydroma, the Malian company which is developing the Bourakébougou hydrogen field has drilled a total of 24 exploration wells in its exploitation block.

Different geological and geochemical studies have shown that natural hydrogen there has been accumulated in at least 5 stacked reservoirs, the shallowest at a depth of 100 meters and the deepest reservoir to be found at about 1400 meters (Prinzhofer et al., 2018).

One well reached the basement below the Neoproterozoic sediments at a depth of 1500m down to a depth of 1800m and encountered hydrogen in the crustal rocks, recording a probable deep generative source of this gas.

Natural hydrogen: a high impact…low CAPEX…game-changing investment

The large number of occurrences on Earth associated with possible local production without large investments is indeed a change of paradigm when discussing natural hydrogen in comparison with the oil and gas industry.

We may consider producing the easiest sweet spots for natural hydrogen, as no one has yet exploited this resource. We were in the same situation for oil in the 19th century. Today, the “easy oil” has been already produced, and exploration/production of hydrocarbons has become a large, complex and expensive business. The fact that naturel hydrogen seems to be present in almost every country, even in modest amounts, implies investments which do not require using the large Major energy companies. This allows to think about a new decentralized relation to our energy sources.

Indeed, in the past century, a centralized relationship to energy was the norm because of geological constraints and because coal and hydrocarbons are located in specific areas, and required heavy investments and present big industrial challenges. As it appears from our first experience with natural hydrogen, it represents a much more ubiquitous resource on Earth, needing much smaller structures of production and valuation, today associated with shallow wells.

The choice of hydrogen exploitation for distant markets or for more proximal ones may be considered separately from societal and economic constraints. The end-use markets are local
and varied, for example: mobility, local industrial plants eager in energy, ammonia factories, electricity generation transferred to smart grid systems, etc.

Exploration in continental areas has shown already very interesting indices of potential exploitation. The fact that the sweep spots occur in areas generally poorly equipped in energy resources may give a real opportunity of economic development in the 21st century for countries of South America and Africa among others.

Indeed, as said before, natural hydrogen may be converted locally into electricity carried through high voltage electric lines, or may be used for local mobility, for energy-demanding industrial plants (for example adjacent mining industries), not to mention ammoniac plants for local fertilizers. A successful exploration for natural hydrogen in various countries of Africa for example may change drastically the political future of this continent in the 21st century.

Another issue concerning continents like Africa or South America is the indispensable link between energy resources and metals needed for the new technologies of the energy transition. A lot of ore deposits exist in these continents, but their exploitation is still limited due to the lack of infrastructures, investments, and access to cheap and clean energy. This may change with the occurrence of natural hydrogen, allowing to access in the same areas the energy source and the raw materials. As iron and sulfur are generally concentrated around and in ore deposits, the association of natural hydrogen with existing or potential mining districts makes an interesting synergy between raw metal exploitation and clean energy need for mining production and ore treatment). We may conceive at that stage a real independence for social development.

Such projects nonetheless are structured one step at a time and help create local education infrastructures such as upper-level university training exchanges (Master level programs, doctorates, engineering careers) to support the required skilled resources.

Two concerns associated with Social Sciences should be considered urgently: Governmental national regulations of natural hydrogen exploration permits and production. For example, hydrogen permits and tax regulations, which have not been considered so far for natural hydrogen, except in rare countries. The second concern is the public information and acceptability of a new source of energy that carries historically a bad reputation (flammability, explosion risks etc.). This represents a drastic change, which should be faced and discussed openly.


At HyNAT we believe that natural hydrogen is not only a new business for energy companies committed to a clean, decarbonated and renewable source of energy, but also an opportunity:

  • to reconsider the global economic and social equilibria,
  • to favor developing countries,
  • and to enable a diversified and decentralized relationship between people and energy.

This is a challenge that can be met if we focus our collective intelligence, and our best scientific minds, on understanding how natural hydrogen is generated within the Earth and on creating accurate exploration guidelines for finding it.

In addition, the legal boundaries must be drawn accordingly in terms of bid regulations and national fiscal policies associated with this new resource.

Natural hydrogen is a ubiquitous, economical, decarbonated, renewable source of energy. We believe, however, that its real value added is the positive local economic impact it will have on those countries that develop this amazing resource.

The Earth gave us coal, oil & gas for the 20th century; our planet is giving us natural hydrogen for the 21st century and beyond.


Arrouvel C. and Prinzhofer A. (2021): Genesis of natural hydrogen: new insights from thermodynamic simulations. Int. J. of Hydrogen Energy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhydene.2021.03.057
Larin N., Zgonnik V., Rodina S., Deville E., Prinzhofer A. and Larin V.N. (2014): Natural molecular hydrogen seepage associated with surficial, rounded depressions on the European craton in Russia. Natural Ressources Research, DOI: 10.1007/s11053-014-9257-5.
Marcaillou C, Munoz M, Vidal O, Parra T, Harfouche M. (2011): Mineralogical evidence for H2 degassing during serpentinization at 300 degrees C/300 bar. Earth Planet Sci Lett 2011 Mar 1;303(3e4):281e90. https://doi.org/10.1016/ j.epsl.2011.01.006.
Moretti I, Prinzhofer A, Françolin J, Pacheco C, Rosanne M, Rupin F, et al. (2021): Long term monitoring of natural hydrogen superficial emissions in a Brazilian cratonic environment. Sporadic large pulses versus daily periodic emissions. Int J Hydrogen Energy 2021;46(5):3615e28. https://doi.org/10.1016/ j.ijhydene.2020.11.026.
Moretti I., Brouilly E., Loiseau K., Prinzhofer A. and Deville E. (2021) : Hydrogen Emanations in Intracratonic Areas: New Guide Lines for Early Exploration Basin Screening. Geosciences 2021, 11, 145. https://doi.org/10.3390/geosciences11030145
Prinzhofer A, Cisse CST, Diallo AB. (2018: Discovery of a large accumulation of natural hydrogen in Bourakebougou (Mali). Int J Hydrogen Energy 2018;43(42):19315e26. https://doi.org/ 10.1016/j.ijhydene.2018.08.193.
Prinzhofer A, Moretti I, Françolin J, Pacheco C, D’Agostino A, Werly J, Rupin F. (2019): Natural hydrogen continuous emission from sedimentary basins: the example of a Brazilian H2 -emitting structure. Int J Hydrogen Energy 2019;44:5676e85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhydene.2019.01.119.
Sherwood-Lollar B, Voglesonger K, Lin L-H, Lacrampe- Couloume G, Telling J, Abrajano TA, et al. (2007): Hydrogeologic controls on episodic H2 release from Precambrian fractured rocks-energy for deep subsurface life on Earth and Mars. Astrobiology 2007;7:971-86.
Truche L., McCollom T.M. and Martinez I. (2020): Hydrogen and abiotic hydrocarbons: molecules that change the World. Elements, vol. 16, p. 13-18.
Welhan J. A. and Craig H. (1979) Methane and hydrogen in East Pacific Rise hydrothermal fluids. Geophys. Res. Lett. 6, 829– 831.
Zgonnik V. (2020): The occurrence and geoscience of natural hydrogen: a comprehensive review. Earth Sci Rev 2020;203:103140. https://doi.org/10.1016/ j.earscirev.2020.103140.

L’hydrogène naturel : curiosité géologique ou source d’énergie majeure dans le futur ?

Dr. Isabelle Moretti

Projet « solutions pour l'énergie et l'environnement », Université de Pau (E2S-UPPA)
Membre de l’Académie des technologies

L’hydrogène est présent dans l’univers, c’est même la molécule qui y est la plus commune. Dans l’atmosphère terrestre, il n’existe néanmoins qu’en très faible quantité (de l’ordre de 0,5 ppm). Sur Terre, on trouve essentiellement l’hydrogène sous forme combinée - à l’oxygène dans l’eau (H20), au carbone (CH4, C2H6, etc.) - mais aussi directement sous forme gazeuse.

Plusieurs phénomènes entraînent en effet une génération continue d’hydrogène dans la croûte terrestre. L’interaction eau/roche, la diagénèse, va libérer l’hydrogène de l’eau lors de phénomènes d’oxydation, phénomènes que l’on observe dans différents contextes géologiques. Dès qu’il y a, par exemple, du fer « ferreux » (Fe2+) en contact avec de l’eau (de mer ou de pluie), il s’oxyde en ferrique Fe3+ et libère de l’hydrogène. La même réaction peut aussi se faire avec d’autres métaux comme le magnésium ; elle est rapide et efficace à haute température - vers 300°C - mais aussi possible à des températures plus basses.

D’autres sources d’hydrogène naturel sont connues : la radioactivité naturelle de la croûte terrestre (radiolyse) peut notamment séparer hydrogène et oxygène de l’eau et libérer ces gaz.

Carte mondiale de l'hydrogène naturel
Carte non exhaustive des émanations déjà connues d’hydrogène natif et de méthane abiotique dérivé de l’hydrogène qui réagit en particulier au niveau des fumeurs avec le CO2. (©Isabelle Moretti, modifiée d’après Prinzhofer et Deville, 2015)


« L’association de l’industrie avec les scientifiques permettra de connaître la vitesse de formation de l’hydrogène naturel dans le sol », avance le chercheur Alain Prinzhofer

Publié le 18/06/2021
© Alain Prinzhofer

Géochimiste spécialiste de l'hydrogène dit naturel, présent dans le sous-sol, Alain Prinzhofer est aussi directeur scientifique de GEO4U, une compagnie de recherche et service, et directeur technique chez HYNAT, une compagnie de recherche, d’exploration et d’exploitation d’hydrogène naturel. Il dresse pour I&T le portrait de cette potentielle source d'énergie non-fossile.

Ces dernières années, des émanations d’hydrogène ont été détectées à de nombreux endroits. L’hydrogène naturel serait-il présent un peu partout sur la planète ?

Je peux vous dire que chaque fois que nous sommes allés quelque part à la recherche d’hydrogène naturel, nous en avons trouvé. Mais c’est une réponse un peu malhonnête. Si vous faites un trou dans votre jardin vous avez de grandes chances de trouver un peu d’hydrogène dans le sol. Mais est-ce que cela veut dire que vous n’allez plus avoir besoin de payer votre abonnement EDF ? Non. La question est celle de l’exploitation, et il est beaucoup plus difficile d’y répondre. Nous pensons qu’il y a sûrement de nombreux endroits où l’hydrogène sera exploitable. Beaucoup de gens proposent de faire un parallèle entre ce qu’il se passe aujourd’hui et l’exploration pétrolière au 19e siècle. A l’époque c’était du pétrole facile et il n’y en avait pas partout. Si nous en avons trouvé autant c’est parce que nous sommes allés chercher du pétrole beaucoup plus difficile d’accès. J’ai tendance à imaginer que pour l’hydrogène, cela va être la même chose.

Une meilleure connaissance de la formation de l’hydrogène naturel pourrait aider à identifier les meilleurs gisements. Où en est la science sur cette question ?

Le phénomène le plus étudié est la serpentinisation. Dans certaines roches il y a un minéral que l’on appelle l’olivine qui va s’oxyder au contact de l’eau car elle contient du fer ferreux (Fe2+). Lors de la réaction l’olivine se transforme en magnétite avec le passage du fer ferreux (Fe2+) en fer ferrique (Fe3+) et l’eau va voir ses liaisons brisées, avec formation d’hydrogène. Mais ce n’est pas le seul mécanisme. Il y a notamment le sulfure d’hydrogène, sur lequel j’ai travaillé avec Corinne Arrouvel (Université Fédérale du Brésil) : c’est une espèce très réactive qui précipite en présence de fer pour donner de la pyrite. Ce sulfure d'hydrogène peut réagir avec l’eau pour donner de l’hydrogène par oxydation encore une fois. Cette réaction est très intéressante à plus d’un point de vue mais nous sommes encore en travaux. Je peux ajouter également que nous travaillons sur le rôle de l’ion ammonium (NH4+) dans la formation d’hydrogène. Donc il y a beaucoup de mécanismes de formation, qui dépendent du lieu, du contexte géologique, dont nous ignorons l’importance relative. Il y a du pain sur la planche.

La vitesse de formation de l’hydrogène dans le sous-sol est une autre question-clé, notamment pour savoir si l’on peut considérer l’hydrogène naturel comme une source d’énergie renouvelable. Quelle est cette vitesse ?

Nous avons quelques idées, mais nous n’avons pas de vrai chiffre. Nous pouvons observer des flux de fuite à la surface du sol, ce qui nous donne une information imparfaite, qui minore les flux puisque le sol est un consommateur d’H2, notamment via les microorganismes. Nous pouvons aussi faire des estimations avec l’exploitation malienne, où de l’hydrogène est extrait depuis 7 ans du sous-sol. Nous mesurons la pression à la sortie du puits qui est restée assez constante sur les 7-8 années d’exploitation, mais depuis 1 an, 1 an et demi nous observons une augmentation de la pression. Cela indique une réalimentation et c’est donc un argument supplémentaire en faveur du caractère renouvelable de l’hydrogène naturel. Toutefois, nous avons besoin de plus de recul, notamment des expériences des industriels. Je pense que c’est l’association de l’industrie avec les scientifiques qui pourra donner une réponse très précise à cette question. Cela nous permettra de nous adapter : soutirer le gaz du sous-sol à la même vitesse que l’hydrogène se forme pour ne pas réduire les stocks sans pour autant « gâcher » de l’hydrogène qui serait « perdu » si on ne pompe pas assez vite.

L'exploitation malienne confirme la possibilité pour l’hydrogène de former des poches. Comment ce gaz léger s’accumule-t-il dans le sous-sol ?

Nous pouvons comparer le parcours de l’hydrogène dans le sol à celui d’une personne qui rentre en voiture du travail. Parfois la route est fluide et parfois il y a des embouteillages avant d’arriver chez soi. Pour l’hydrogène c’est pareil, il passe par des roches perméables et d’autres plus imperméables avant d’arriver à l’atmosphère. Il va s'accumuler dans les zones plus imperméables : avec un flux constant et une vitesse de sortie réduite, la densité moléculaire augmente dans ces zones. Ca donne des réservoirs. Si on veut exploiter l’hydrogène c’est là qu’il faut viser.

Qu’est l’avenir de l’hydrogène naturel selon vous ?

Alors là je pose ma casquette de scientifique et je prends celle de directeur technique d'HYNAT. Notre crédo est que l’hydrogène naturel devienne une ressource utilisée plus localement que le pétrole. Nous avons vécu au 20e siècle avec 80% d’export et 20% d’utilisation locale pour le pétrole. Avec l’hydrogène naturel, nous voulons inverser ces chiffres.

Natural hydrogen: a geological curiosity or the primary energy source for a low-carbon future?

by Isabelle Moretti , M. E. Webber. View full article

A "witch's ring", from which natural hydrogen escapes, seen from a drone. Alain Prinzhofer, Author provided

The history of energy is one of gradual substitutions from inefficient, dirtier, expensive options to cleaner, cheaper, higher-performing fuels. Mills and machines replaced manual labor, and more recently electricity replaced kerosene, which had replaced whale oil for lighting, and coal replaced wood for industry and heating buildings. But what about gases?
A century ago, town gas was manufactured by burning coal, producing coke and a blend of methane and hydrogen but also toxic gases such as CO and other pollutants along the way. Later, large reserves of natural gas (primarily composed of methane) were found, which were both cheaper and cleaner, so we stopped manufacturing town gas. As a result of methane’s utility, abundance and affordability, it is used for just about every sector of society. Today that gas is used for heating, cooking, power generation, and as a feedstock to make materials such as chemicals and plastics.
So what will replace fossil reserves of natural gas? Electricity can replace some uses of gas, but not all of them. Biogas is a useful alternative, but limited in scale to replace the entirety of our needs for gaseous fuels and, in some countries, it is leading to a land use debate. That means we still need some fuel that is cleaner and cheaper than gas.
The popular candidate grabbing today’s headlines is hydrogen. It burns more cleanly than natural gas, but to date has been much more expensive to manufacture from water or hydrocarbon sources.

Hydrogen: Uses and Problems

Hydrogen has until now primarily served as a raw material for industry. It is also gaining popularity as an elegant way to store electricity, but the economics of these transformations, converting electricity to hydrogen (via electrolysis) and back to electricity through fuel cells, turbines or engines (known end-to-end as Power-to-gas-to-power, or P2G2P) is difficult. Though hydrogen gained notoriety in a 2003 State of the Union speech by President George W. Bush as a transportation fuel, the competition from electric vehicles has dominated investment budgets by major automotive manufacturers, it is now quickly changing in Asia where China and Korean car manufactured get focused on H2 cars.
In 2018 there were just over 70 million tons of Hydrogen consumed for all purposes, mostly to make ammonia for fertilizers and to lighten and sweeten crude oil at refineries. Demand for hydrogen is expected to grow 8x to satisfy over 550 million tons of demand in 2050, again as a feedstock, but also for transportation, building heat, and power generation.
Unfortunately, today’s methods for producing hydrogen emit CO2 or require significant energy inputs or both. A majority of hydrogen consumed today is made from methane, or more generally from hydrocarbons, by steam reforming, a production method that emits CO2. One can also crack methane (CH4) to black carbon and hydrogen in the absence of oxygen with a method known as pyrolysis, using plasma technologies that also require heat or electricity. Hydrogen can also be produced by electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity to separate hydrogen from water.
Less than 5% of the H2 produced today is with this method. But that electricity for pyrolysis or electrolysis is not a source but an energy vector: electricity relies on the availability of a primary energy source.

Another Option: Natural Hydrogen

Though primary wind and solar energies are unlimited, they still need many natural resources extracted by mining or quarrying to be transformed into electricity. Many metals mandatory for solar photovoltaic and wind technologies, as for electrolyzers, are only produced in a few countries, making them strategically critical resources. Finding a new way to produce H2 that doesn’t emit CO2, doesn’t rely on strategic materials, and is produced more regularly than what variable sources can provide is therefore important and would be of great value.
Thankfully, there is another option that has not garnered much attention: natural hydrogen (also known as native hydrogen) that is generated by geological processes. Emanations of Hydrogen have been observed in many places. As a consequence, subsurface accumulations of hydrogen drilled “par hazard” and its direct extraction, although still anecdotal today, is beginning to be seriously considered as an abundant source of truly green and inexpensive H2 (Prinzhofer and Deville, 2015; Moretti, 2019).

Map of the already known H2 and CH4 derived from H2 emission

The Origin of H2

Hydrogen is the most common molecule in the universe. However, in the Earth’s atmosphere it exists only in very small quantities at around 500 parts per billion (or 0.5 ppm). Other than trace amounts of gaseous dihydrogen (H2) at the Earth’s surface and above, we find hydrogen essentially combined: with oxygen in water (H2O) and with carbon in all hydrocarbons (CH4, C2H6 …). However, what is becoming clearer with time is that several phenomena lead to a continuous generation of H2 in the Earth's crust. A water-rock interaction known as diagenesis releases hydrogen from water during oxidation phenomena that can be observed in different geological contexts. As soon as there is, for example, ferrous iron (Fe2+), in contact with water (sea or rain) it oxidizes to ferric Fe3+ and releases H2. The same reaction can also take place with other metals such as magnesium (Mg2+ => Mg3+); it is fast and efficient at high temperatures, around 300°C, but also possible at lower temperatures. Other sources of natural H2 are known. Another production pathway is radiolysis, by which H2 contained in water is separated from oxygen by the natural radioactivity of the earth's crust (Sherwood et al., 2014). Estimates of the flow of H2 through the latter two sources, diagenesis and radiolysis, are important but still not very precise, varying according to the authors from a few percent to 100% of the annual consumption of H2 in 2019, or approximately 70 Million of tons. Other sources such as friction on the fault planes and the activity of certain bacteria also release H2 but, a priori, in smaller quantities (Worman 2020). What is important to note is that in all these cases it is a flow of H2 and not an accumulated, fossil resource. At the same time, the preservation of large quantities of primordial H2, the H2 present at the initiation of the solar system, in the mantle, or even in the earth's core during the formation of the earth is also a working hypothesis explored by some researchers (Larin et al., 2015, Zgonnik, 2020). In this hypothesis, H2 is a fossil resource but almost infinite.

Where do these reactions occur? And can H2 accumulate in the subsurface?

The minerals in the rocks emitted by underwater volcanoes of the mid-ocean ridges, especially olivine, oxidize on contact with water and release H2. At the level of the smokers of the mid-Atlantic ridge these emanations have been studied for a long time, in particular to understand the appearance of life on earth. Some authors even made calculations on the economics of the recovery of this H2, offshore and at great depths (Charlou et al., 2002, Goffé et al., 2013). Natural hydrogen recovery from the mid-Atlantic ridge did not attract much business interest at the time that work was published because the conditions – such as water depth and distance from the coast - were considered too difficult for economic capture and transportation to market despite the large quantity of H2 released by the smokers. Those difficulties remain unsolved, so we anticipate a nascent H2 E&P industry, like that of all other natural resources, will likely start onshore. Fortunately, this type of volcano can also be observed where the mid-oceanic ridges outcrop, either because they are in an early stage as in the Afars, the triple point between the central axes of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the East African Rift, or because they are uplifted by deeper phenomena (a hot spot) as in Iceland. In fact, in this island, the fumaroles of the neo volcanic zone of the central axis of the rift all contain H2 (Stefansson, 2017). For the moment only the thermal energy content of the hot water, the heat-transfer fluid that brings energy to the surface, are used in the geothermal power plants, but it could be otherwise as those geothermal fluids contain large fractions of hydrogen. Generally speaking, production of H2 by surface separation in addition to extraction of geothermal energy would be possible in many areas such as Tosacani. This path seems to be worth exploring because the difficulties encountered in trying to make many high temperature geothermal projects economical mean that a second revenue stream from hydrogen sales would be appealing. Oceanic crusts that can oxidize are also found at or near the surface in suture zones, where the compression and the thrusting of the sheets form mountains. Oman and the Philippines are the most studied cases but H2 emanations have also been noted in New Caledonia and in the Pyrenees. Often this hydrogen reacts immediately with the CO2 in the atmosphere and precipitates as carbonate, which effectively makes the process a natural and spectacular carbon capture process.
There are other on-shore geological sources of H2 that are easier to access: Precambrian cratons that are more than ½ billion years old. A recently published synthesis by Zgonnik (2020) catalogs hundreds of cratons where hydrogen flows have been observed, including in Russia (around Moscow), the USA (South Carolina, Kansas), and also in many other places. The source could be relatively similar, namely the oxidation of an iron-rich material and the release of H2. This mechanism seems reasonable as surface leakages are systematically in zones where the basement is very old and rich in metals.

An Example of Natural Hydrogen Production

One example of natural H2 production is particularly compelling. In 1987 a well was drilled in Mali to search for water. The well turned out to be dry, but unexpectedly produced significant volumes of H2. Aliou Diallo, the director of Petroma (now renamed Hydroma) saw the possibility of local, carbon-free energy in a country that is deprived of it, so the company put the native H2 into production. The well was unplugged in 2011 in order to use it for a pilot to generate electricity for a small village. The hydrogen that comes out of the well is almost pure (more than 96%) so it can be directly burned in a gas turbine. Other surrounding wells have been drilled by Hydroma since 2018 to try to determine the size of the reserves, similar to the early years of oil & gas, and to increase the flows of hydrogen that could be used as feedstock for an ammonia production plant. Part of the results have been published, Prinzhofer et al (2018), and show that all the wells have H2 fluxes. This success has shattered many “a priori”. As of this writing in 2020, the initial well has been producing for 4 years without any pressure decrease from its initial baseline of approximately 4 bars, which implies continuous recharging of the reservoir 110m belowground. The surface measurements of the H2 sensors do not show any leakage, which leads to the conclusion that, contrary to what had been expected given the size of the H2 molecule and its ability to chemically recombine, there are seal rocks that enable an accumulation of H2 and that it can remain in the gaseous phase under our feet. Mr. Diallo and his team have done a lot to draw attention to this basin, especially since H2 can be produced there at much less than a dollar per kilogram, which is significantly cheaper than conventional costs for hydrogen production by electrolysis or steam methane reforming with carbon capture. Unfortunately, because of the complicated above-ground political and security situation in Mali, the follow-on work by the scientific community in this location essentially stopped.
Nevertheless, the production data over several years in combination with the search for a low-carbon energy sources has revived interest in the subject and various research and exploration projects have been launched since 2018 (Gauchet 2020). An exploration company dedicated to hydrogen was created in the USA (NH2E) and drilled a first well in Kansas at the end of 2019. In France the company 45-8 is looking for helium and H2, which are often co-located underground. Helium gas has strategic importance and commands a higher price than H2, so exploration and production companies often prioritize helium even though the helium market in volume is smaller than the hydrogen market. That is actually an advantage for the natural hydrogen market as companies looking for helium are likely to find hydrogen even if that was not their goal.

The Fairy Circles

When some say resources, others think reserves. And some even want to know the proven reserves before starting any H2 exploration business. Our world of the 21st century advocates innovation but is also becoming in many contexts more and more anti risk... Fortunately, our ancestors did not wait to calculate the world's iron reserves before moving into the Iron Age.
As it stands, we do not know how much H2 is produced daily on earth by the pathways listed above. We also do not know how much of this H2 accumulates in reservoirs where it would be easy to produce it. And, perhaps, we have not yet identified all the reactions that would produce H2. After more than a hundred and fifty years of drilling, oil reserves continue to evolve constantly – in fact they continue to grow as we find more oil-- and we had no idea what a source rock or an oil system was during the first 50 years of this industry. For H2 we still lack knowledge and there are very few wells dedicated to its exploration, so it is difficult to estimate total global volumes.
However, there are surface emanations that give us a hint of what to expect. What do they tell us?
Southeast of Moscow, Larin and his co-authors (2015) noted slight depressions that were roughly circular and clearly visible on aerial photos; the community called them fairy circles. Often the vegetation dies at these circles and if one goes there with a gas detector escaping H2 in non-negligible volumes can be measured in a non-constant and non-continuous way. In the USA, it is the IFPen teams that have made the measurements and the results are similar (Zgonnik et al., 2015). In Brazil, Canada, Australia and Namibia, similar features are also observed. However, to draw conclusions on the possibility of producing this hydrogen economically, it is necessary to know the volumetric flow rates and not just the concentration.
H2 sensors are available on the market that can provide a punctual measurement of hydrogen in the soil at a given moment. Engie's research teams, aware of this need for additional data to estimate the flux and thus, eventually, the reserves, developed a new permanent sensor (Moretti et al., 2018). The H2 soil concentration is measured every hour and the data are sent directly by satellite to the researchers. More than a hundred of these sensors have been installed in the San Francisco Basin in Brazil where significant percentages of H2 in the subsurface had already been found and where witch rings (another name for ‘fairy circles’) were visible. By late 2020 they had been in operation for almost 2 years and the first published results confirm the significant, but not continuous and non-constant flow of H2 over the structure (Prinzhofer et al., 2019; Moretti et al., 2020). The integral of the measurements are roughly the same order of magnitude as that published in Russia, about 7000 m3/day, i. e. 680 kg on a 0.4 km2 structure. Importantly, this first continuous recording on a fairy circle revealed that the flow varies during the day, in a systematic way. The pattern begins with a very high pulse of H2 followed by a regular H2 flow on a cycle of 24 hours. This cycle had already been noted by those who study H2 near active faults in the framework of risk prevention but its implications had not been taken into account to our knowledge. These daily variations call into question previous data that indicated these circles were dead structures as it is possible to monitor at the wrong time when the features appear to be asleep. Thus, continuous monitoring might be an essential element of assessing and producing natural hydrogen.
The emanations that we measure in Russia, USA or Brazil are between 50 and 1900 kg/km2/day. To give perspective, with 5 kg we fill the reservoir of a fuel cell vehicle such as a Toyota Mirai. It is worth noting that geologists do not determine the volume of oil reserves by looking at the surface index, as it is only a tiny percentage that escapes, so perhaps using surface leaks of hydrogen are similarly error-prone.