A new gold rush? The search for the natural hydrogen motherlode is coming

After helping to discover the world’s first deposit of natural hydrogen in West Africa, which kick-started a search for the buried gas around the world, Denis Brière hopes his next breakthrough will be in Canada.

Brière is a petrophysicist and vice-president of Calgary-based Chapman Hydrogen and Petroleum Engineering, which plans to begin testing and drilling in northern Ontario this summer in the hopes of finding enough hydrogen underground to produce and market the gas.

For the longest time, no one was even looking for hydrogen — they didn’t think natural deposits existed because the element was too small, and there wasn’t much demand for the gas, anyway.

That’s changed considerably. Hydrogen is now seen by many experts as an essential fuel to help decarbonize the global economy, because it does not produce carbon dioxide when used as a fuel or in industrial processes.

A gold rush, of sorts, is now underway in some parts of the world, including Spain, Germany, Australia and the United States.

WATCH | The delicate nature of producing hydrogen:

How drilling for hydrogen is different than oil and natural gas

Hydrogen is a unique element with some sensitivities, says Denis Brière, a vice-president of Calgary-based Chapman Hydrogen and Petroleum Engineering. The company will look for natural hydrogen in Ontario in the summer of 2024.

Montreal-based Hydroma made the initial discovery of hydrogen in Mali in 1987, when it was drilling for water. 

At first, the 100-metre well was considered a bust because no liquid was found. But a day later, interest was piqued after a driller inadvertently set fire to the well by lighting a cigarette. It took a month to put the flames out.

Still, the well was largely forgotten until a few decades later. Brière became involved in 2012 to help identify what, exactly, was inside it. Laboratory testing showed the deposit was 98 per cent pure hydrogen. 

In 2014, production began at the well in Bourakébougou, Mali, and it remains the world’s only developed natural hydrogen site.

A man points his finger at a map to a location in Ontario.
Denis Brière was involved in the first discovery of natural hydrogen in Mali. He’s now involved in searching for deposits in Canada. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

But it’s not expected to be alone for long — a large discovery in France, in particular, could lead to more production in the years to come. Last month, President Emmanuel Macron promised “massive investments” to kick-start the industry.

“It’s beginning to take off just about everywhere in the world,” said Brière. “Of course, we don’t want to miss out here because the rocks that exist in Mali are the same kind of rocks that we have in our Canadian Shield.”

Brière and his team will collect water, gas and rock samples in an area near Timmins and Sudbury in northern Ontario. The next step would be to drill wells to see what’s underground.

The search is on

Hydrogen is already used in many industries, such as at refineries and fertilizer facilities. In Canada, hydrogen fuel cells are…

Read More: A new gold rush? The search for the natural hydrogen motherlode is coming

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