Petroma, a Canadian research company headed by Malian businessman Aliou Boubacar Diallo, is producing electricity from natural hydrogen in a Malian village. It is the first such venture of its kind and is potentially, a game-changer for the planet. Were the Petroma pilot plant in Bourakébougou to be replicated on an industrial scale, it could guarantee Mali a clean, green source of electricity and even provide a surplus for export. What’s more, Petroma will have led the way to the future, one of pollution-free fuels and cheap electricity. The success of the Bourakébougou initiative has already given scientists reason to explore the promise of natural hydrogen as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Aliou Boubacar Diallo, Petroma CEO
Both science and art are at work in Petroma’s groundbreaking venture. The science is relatively straightforward. Hydrogen is the most energy-rich gas and is considered a good candidate to replace fossil fuels as the world moves towards decarbonisation.
The art is more complicated. It was a leap of faith for Diallo to launch his pilot project in 2012 in Bourakébougou, 60 km north-east of the Malian capital Bamako. Locals had discovered the natural hydrogen deposit quite by chance 15 years before Petroma set up the plant and had blocked the gas hissing from the ground. After that, no one paid the region’s hydrocarbon potential much attention until Diallo and his mining exploration company decided to obtain concessions in Bourakébougou. When scientists discovered abundant natural hydrogen, composed of 98 per cent hydrogen and 2 per cent methane, Diallo used his own money to fund 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 for Mali, which for the first time is a pioneer in the world in a cutting edge field: the production of electricity without CO2 emissions.” But the outlook wasn’t quite as clear – or hopeful – back in the early 2000s, when Petroma sought the Bourakébougou concession. Until 2010 there wasn’t even a consensus that natural hydrogen existed in the soil as a resource of sufficient intensity to be extracted. The most common processes used for hydrogen generation required the decomposition of natural gas or electrolysis of water, both of which were expensive and resulted in undesirable by-products. Free hydrogen was thought to be rare but after scientists confirmed a deposit in northern Russia, French experts Eric Deville and Alain Prinzhofer visited the country and wrote a book ‘Natural Hydrogen. The Next Energy Revolution?’ Last year, filmmakers Shelley 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 in the universe, they argued, hydrogen is the next step in the natural evolution of energy. And the Hydrogen Council, a global CEO-led initiative of 60 leading energy, transport and industry companies to develop the hydrogen economy, has said hydrogen could provide almost a fifth of total energy consumed by 2050, and cut carbon emissions by about six billion tonnes compared to today.
If Petroma’s pilot unit in Bourakébougou seems a still small but powerful illustration of the argument, consider what the future might hold. According to recent scientific studies, the Bourakébougou basin may have far greater amounts of hydrogen than previously thought. A paper published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy in October 2018 by Professor Prinzhofer and his team noted that the hydrogen in Bourakébougou was "relatively pure". It added that the surface geochemistry of Bourakébougou indicated “the presence of hydrogen could extend up to distances of more than 150 km”. Going by that estimate, the natural hydrogen field would be roughly 20 times greater than previous projections. If so, the Prinzhofer paper said, it would open “new prospects for a future industrial exploitation of hydrogen …(and would) underscore the potential economic benefit of natural hydrogen operations in onshore continental areas.” The “benefit” would go much beyond natural hydrogen’s obvious value as a non-polluting energy source. It is much cheaper to generate electricity from natural hydrogen than that produced in the factory, whether from fossil energy or electrolysis.
All of which would take Mali, a country that has recently makes headlines for its toxic mix of ethnic rivalry, jihadism and poor governance, into the big league of global innovators. And Petroma’s Bourakébougou unit would become the leading test case for similar projects elsewhere, as the world struggles to transition to clean energy.