Feu vert pour l’exploration d’hydrogène blanc en France

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The first so-called “white” hydrogen research permit has just been delivered by the government to the company TBH2 Aquitaine. This fuel, which arouses the enthusiasm of industrialists, is at the center of desire in a France in search of energy sovereignty.

This December 3, the Official Journal published a stop which authorizes the search for natural hydrogen, also nicknamed “hydrogen[1] white” in the French basement. This authorization, unprecedented in France, results in the granting of an exclusive research permit (PER) to the company TBH2 Aquitaine based in Pau. For a period of five years, it will be able to carry out drilling and explore an area of ​​225 km² in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department. This first follows the amendment of the French Mining Code which added natural hydrogen to the list of mining resources in April 2022.

New permits should follow concerning five other applications which are currently “under examination”, according to the Ministry of Energy Transition and among them a joint request des start-up 45-8 Energy[2] a Storengy[3].

Last May, the gas operator Française de l’Énergie (FDE) also filed a request for a PER following of the fortuitous discovery by researchers of a potential white hydrogen deposit in the Lorraine mining basin.

A carbon-free and potentially renewable energy source

While it was thought to be rare in its pure state on Earth, the discovery of large deposits of natural hydrogen suggests an alternative to hydrocarbons.

To produce hydrogen, it is necessary to dissociate dihydrogen from the other components which are oxygen in water (H2O) and carbon in methane. Today, 95% of the hydrogen used comes from fossil fuels almost half of which comes from « reformage » natural gas. In this case, the hydrogen is called “gray”, thus distinguishing it from so-called “black” hydrogen made from coal.

L’hydrogen is called “green” if it comes from the electrolysis of the water molecule, provided that the source of electricity used is renewable (wind, solar, hydraulic). An ecological solution but not very competitive because the process is very expensive.

Other forms of hydrogen exist : “yellow” if it is produced by electrolysis of water using electricity of nuclear origin or “blue” if CO2 issued during manufacturing is captured for reuse or storage.

White hydrogen, being directly present in underground deposits, does not need the support of other energy sources to be generated. It is the result, among other things, of interactions between iron-rich or radioactive rocks and water molecules.

This source of carbon-free energy also has the advantage of being inexpensive. In the village of Bourakébougou in Mali, the only deposit exploited in the world, white hydrogen is produced for less than one euro per kilogram. For comparison, the cost of gray hydrogen is estimated[4] in between 0.9 and 3 € per kilogram.

Another advantage: the earth’s crust would continuously produce white hydrogen. This renewal, which remains hypothetical, would take place over a few years compared to several hundred million years for oil.

Although industrial hydrogen is used mainly in petrochemicals for the manufacture of agricultural fertilizers and in oil refining, the uses could be multiple if this windfall kept its promises: storage of renewable energies or transport sector supply for vehicles equipped with a fuel cell. However, the potential for hydrogen to disperse due to its lightness increases the risk of leakage through the tank walls.

At a time when other countries like Australia or the United States are already in the race for white gold, the President of the Republic launched this Monday a call to industrialists to position France at the forefront of this new El Dorado.


[1] Language abuse ; in reality, it is dihydrogen H2

[2] Company dedicated to the exploration and production of eco-responsible industrial gases

[3] Engie subsidiary specializing in underground natural gas storage

[4] The cost has doubled (6 €/kg) due to increases in gas prices resulting from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

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