A search for usable reserves of natural hydrogen, also known as ‘white’ hydrogen, has been given the go-ahead in 43 communes in Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
White hydrogen, formed by the action of acid water on iron carbonate-rich rocks, has been known as a geological curiosity.
As governments seek to end reliance on fossil fuels, however, there is renewed interest in exploiting it commercially.
President Macron has promised “massive” financing for explorations, saying “France can become one of the pioneers in this energy of the future”.
A French hydrogen industry body claims the gas could represent a fifth of French energy use by 2050.
‘White’ hydrogen is continuously replenished unlike fossil fuels
Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to produce electricity and it emits only heat and water when it burns.
However, most hydrogen production currently relies on gas or coal, in processes that emit a lot of CO2.
‘Green’ hydrogen can be made using renewable energy but at greater expense. It is hoped that white hydrogen could cut out production processes altogether.
The gas would instead be extracted directly from natural reserves in the ground, which are continuously replenished – unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form.
White hydrogen potential discovered by accident
The exploration permit in Pyrénées-Atlantiques was given to a firm called TBH2 Aquitaine.
It will start with seismic studies and take “two or three years” before deciding on sites for drilling.
New permits will be needed before drilling actually starts and, if reserves are found, it is likely to be a decade before commercial operations start.
Today, there is only one white hydrogen gas field in operation in the world, in Mali.
That reserve was discovered after a failed water drilling operation in 1987 left a hole emitting a stream of odourless gas.
When a villager lit a cigarette, it exploded, giving him burns. The hydrogen burnt for weeks before a drilling crew capped the hole.
However, it was only in 2007 that the possibility of using the gas for electricity production was mooted.
Both Australia and the US are ahead of France in the hunt for white hydrogen and are ready to start drilling in likely spots.
France has some of the worlds largest deposits
Exploitable reserves of white hydrogen might also be found under old coal mines in France’s Lorraine region following a chance discovery by the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) when looking for methane in the area.
It has been speculated that the world’s largest reserves might be there, at a depth of 3,000 metres.
Française de l’Energie said last March it was applying for permits to start testing for white hydrogen in the area, and in November said the process to get permits was still on course.
In Pyrénées-Atlantiques, believed to have among the world’s largest deposits of the gas, four other requests to prospect, all from different companies, are also in the regulatory pipeline.