Natural disasters worldwide, public debate, policy decisions and shareholder pressure are just some of the factors motivating companies to seek alternatives to traditional oil and gas to fuel the ever-increasing demand for energy worldwide. One of those alternatives is hydrogen – a renewable energy source that proponents believe brings a wealth of opportunities and challenges.
Argentina’s national energy company YPF is one such proponent. They are considering using natural gas from the massive Vaca Muerta play to produce “blue hydrogen,” which is produced by combining natural gas and steam. The process produces small amounts of carbon dioxide, which is stored underground using carbon capture and storage technology.
Matias Di Benedetto, YPF’s strategy and exploration projects manager, said the strategy is good both for the company and the country. This visualization is carried out jointly by YPF Tecnología (YTEC) with the collaboration of exploration, but YPF is currently in the process of structuring and centralizing all the projects that the company is promoting as part of its strategy for the Energy Transition.
“In exploration we must look to the future, open pathways and identify new opportunities. The world is changing at a rate that, in recent years, has exceeded our forecasts, and in the current environment, many countries of the northern hemisphere are recognizing the need to change their energy mix, with energy security becoming a central issue for the European Union, India and other countries,” he said.
Di Benedetto served as Vaca Muerta exploration manager before transitioning to his current role overseeing the company’s E&P portfolio, including international exploration and the energy transition.
He said that blue hydrogen projects give YPF the opportunity to integrate traditional exploration techniques and knowledge, such as the identification of underground structures for CO₂ storage, with new disciplines, enabling the company to be a part of the energy industry’s future.
“Both reducing CO₂ emissions by using hydrogen as an alternative energy source and storing CO₂ from hydrocarbons in reservoirs provide opportunities for us to employ our energy transition strategy,” he said. “Argentina is a signatory to the Paris agreement, and YPF, as an Argentine company, has established a road map for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so participating in these types of projects is critical.”
Di Benedetto noted Argentina’s capacity for blue H2 comes from plentiful gas resources, both from conventional and unconventional sources, as well as sophisticated gas refineries suited to generating blue hydrogen.
Oil and Gas Skills for Hydrogen E&P
Di Bennetto said YPF’s experience developing oil and gas resources equips the company to work on hydrogen projects.
“The methods and procedures for identifying suitable structures for hydrocarbon exploration and for defining exploratory projects are very similar to those necessary for the identification and mapping of suitable structures for the storage of CO₂ and natural gas,” he said.
“We must adapt our reservoir depth ranges in addition to guaranteeing the critical trap and seal factors that give integrity to the effective storage of CO₂ while anticipating the assimilation of the injected CO₂ over time.”
He described how geological skills like basin modeling and petroleum systems analysis are key to assessing potential storage sites.
“Currently we are working to integrate reservoir information at a regional level to identify suitable traps for CO₂ storage with a focus on clastic reservoirs in saline aquifers,” he said. “These are the same methods that we use in our exploration objectives, taking into account the parameters traditionally used for modeling of petroleum systems: depth, pressure, temperature, porosity, permeability, lithological composition, etc.”
Making the Transition
As the oil and gas sector expands to develop renewable sources of energy, industry professionals are making their own transition.
Hydrogen projects attract energy professionals like Isabelle Moretti, researcher at the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour in France.
Moretti spent 32 years at the French Petroleum Institute and 10 years with ENGIE, a company dedicated to low-carbon energy production, as well as transport and distribution in 70 countries. She became interested in hydrogen while she served as ENGIE’s chief scientific officer.
“As ENGIE CSO, I worked on all the decarbonized or low-carbon energy sources as well as their smart use (energy efficiency, micro grid). Since I previously was a geologist, natural hydrogen is a mix of my two previous professional lives,” she said.
Moretti said her work has shown her the advantages of natural, or “white” hydrogen, as it is called, as compared to the more frequently studied sources – “blue,” “grey” and “black” hydrogen, produced from coal or natural gas, respectively, and so-called “green” hydrogen, produced when wind or solar energy power electrolyzers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
“Natural hydrogen solves a problem: hydrogen from coal or methane is cheap and easy to manufacture; the one coming from electrolysis is expensive and consumes a lot of energy and a lot of water,” she said.
“As we all know, transformation means loss, so P2G2P – power to gas to power – has today a rather low efficiency and the economy of the system is not yet reached. So, we are far away from a clean fuel, or clean raw material, with these two approaches. Natural hydrogen is truly green and could be the cheapest form of hydrogen,” she said.
Moretti’s colleague, Alain Prinzhofer, scientific director at the GEO4U geosciences services company in Rio de Janeiro, agreed.
“The existence of natural hydrogen changes the paradigm, as its cost seems much less. It is a real new source of energy, and its pollution effect is negligeable,” he said.
Prinzhofer, who also serves as a researcher with the Rio de Janeiro Federal University and Paris University, began studying natural hydrogen 15 years ago.
“Fairy circles,” the site of hydrogen gas emissions in Brazil. The gas leakages affect the vegetation, making the circles visible both to the naked eye as well as on Landsat images. Drone images provided by Alain Prinzhofer.
“My work with natural hydrogen associates my skill as a geologist researcher, as this topic is quite new, and a lot of questions arise about the processes involved in what is called now ‘hydrogen systems,’ in comparison with ‘petroleum systems.’ This work gives me also the opportunity to work with researchers in humanities, as our necessary energy transition is still problematic,” he said.
A Key Player in the Energy Transition
Felipe Gonzalez-Penagos, basin modeler and petroleum systems analyst at Colombia’s national oil company Ecopetrol, discovered natural hydrogen while working as a part of a regional studies team.
“The integration of the regional basin models together with the fluids is something that I have been working on for almost 15 years. A large part of my work is combining the fluid characterization with the basin modeling. The complex fluid-flow history of sedimentary basins in Colombia led me to different hydrocarbon compositions, deep gases origin, hydrodynamics and recently hydrogen,” he said.
Gonzalez-Penagos said he finds work with hydrogen to be both interesting and relevant for today’s industry.
“Hydrogen is a real key player in the energy transition,” he said, because it is “low-emission and energy-dense.”
“White hydrogen is a molecule already present in nature, it means really zero-emission and economical fuel. Clearly there are significant challenges, volumes and trap, but there is already at least one successful case in Mali. We are working to better understand the natural hydrogen system,” he said.
Gonzalez-Penagos noted that natural hydrogen has several origins, but iron-rich rocks are the source that has generated the largest volumes so far. He also noted that natural hydrogen generation follows the same elements and processes as petroleum systems.
“The hydrogen system has a source rock, at different stages of maturity, which generates hydrogen that migrates. Currently, many measurements are being taken on the surface,” he said. “The results show a correlation between the theory of the natural hydrogen system and the concentration of hydrogen. Now we must work on understanding the trap and preservation.”
Natural Hydrogen Potential in Latin America
Gonzalez-Penagos said Colombia, like the rest of South America, has tremendous potential for natural hydrogen.
“The geological settings involve sediments deposited over a highly radioactive craton coupled with active hydrodynamic systems. Oceanic crust accreted to the continent under weathering processes, complex fluid flow systems that involve deep fluids and intrusive bodies,” he said. “All these systems create real potential for natural hydrogen generation; more exploration is required.”
For Prinzhofer, any country with cratons presents evidence of natural hydrogen.
“The main problem is not to find hydrogen, but to find exploitable hydrogen, an accumulation where an economic production is feasible. My experience in South America is only in Brazil, where various states present a high potential for this resource. I guess that other countries, not explored yet, present similar potential,” he said.
Moretti said finding more data is essential to understanding how much hydrogen may be available.
“Data are still missing,” she said, “The only country where natural hydrogen has been really studied in South America is Brazil. The San Francisco Basin is clearly very hydrogen rich, but other Brazilian basins are also promising. In Colombia, the Western Cordillera has some potential source rocks. I recently was in Bolivia and measured hydrogen in many places in the southern part of the Altiplano. Not a lot, but it proves that hydrogen generation is taking place. Uruguay, although nothing has been published yet, may have a potential since Namibia on the other side of the Atlantic has some.”
Gonzalez-Penagos said he hopes Ecopetrol’s work will provide data needed to quantify Colombia’s natural hydrogen resources.
“Hydrogen is part of the compounds present in petroleum systems, but unfortunately, for many years it has not been routinely measured in well chromatography,” he said. “In Colombia, the first indications with which we began to work on hydrogen were in a prolific petroleum basin where some fields show significant amounts of gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and hydrogen.”
Room to Grow
Moretti said that, despite its huge potential, South America lags behind other parts of the world in natural hydrogen exploration.
“In Australia or North America companies already are drilling for hydrogen. In Europe exploration blocks have been taken, many research centers are working on the topic, there are new publications with new data almost every week,” she said.
“In South America, I know that some geologists are trying but there is still some reluctance in the hierarchy. Some want to know the number of trillion cubic feet we will find before drilling. Coming from people from the oil and gas industry, it’s very comical. Rockefeller was rich before we understood anything about a petroleum system and before we developed the concept of P10/P50/P90m.”
Moretti said that petroleum systems fundamentals prove useful to geoscientists interested in working with hydrogen.
“Natural hydrogen is a gas coming from the water/rock interaction, so looking for it we use the same concepts that we are use in basin modeling: a source rock, a carrier bed, a reservoir and a seal,” she said. “What is fascinating though is that in many oil and gas rich basins we also find hydrogen, and sometimes helium. We spent years working there without realizing that these additional resources were there. We also have to keep in mind that late maturation of organic matter, especially coal, also generates hydrogen. In this context all our concepts and tools are still valid.”
Prinzhofer highlighted both similarities and differences between hydrocarbon and hydrogen exploration.
“The development of the concept of hydrogen systems, with a kitchen of generation, a migration, possible accumulations, and loss, are very similar to petroleum systems,” he said.
“The two main differences are the sources – mineral for hydrogen, organic for hydrocarbons – and the fact that the characteristic times are very different, millions of years for hydrocarbons, years for hydrogen. This implies that natural hydrogen is considered renewable at human time scale, which is not the case of course for hydrocarbons.”
Opportunities and Challenges
Prinzhofer noted that work in Africa has shown how hydrogen resources provide benefits beyond oil and gas.
“Finding shallow hydrogen accumulations, as it could be documented in Mali, would be a game-changer for the energy transition, but also for helping agriculture with decentralized fertilizer plants,” he said.
Di Benedetto described YPF’s efforts to use existing oil and gas projects to generate blue hydrogen while also identifying additional sources in for the future.
“We have a large-scale project underway for developing gas from Vaca Muerta, which undoubtedly will be a plentiful source of raw material for the generation of blue hydrogen. Additionally, we are studying Argentina’s potential for renewable energy sources for future generation of green hydrogen,” he said.
He recognized that, while significant potential exists, making hydrogen generation profitable will take time.
“Just like with the development of the Vaca Muerta shale, the biggest challenge will be scaling the project so that hydrogen can become an economical and sustainable alternative source of energy,” he said.
Moretti said she sees parallels between the initial stages of natural hydrogen exploration and the start of the shale gas boom.
“Twenty years ago, the small companies took the risks. The large companies waited, and when it was clear that the reserves were there, the big companies ate the small ones,” she said. “It will happen also with hydrogen, but it is sad to see that large companies are risk averse and are currently laying off their geoscientists.”
Di Benedetto also identified another key challenge: establishing a regulatory framework for hydrogen and other renewable energy sources.
“Most countries in the region lack legislation that regulates the production and storage of alternative fuels. Both development and regulation should evolve together in a coordinated manner,” he said.
“Guides for hydrogen exploration exist, but they must be improved and developed clearly. Governments must aid in the development of this new resource, both from a societal point of view, and by changing the law to allow the exploration and production of hydrogen,” he said.
Moretti said that countries who adapt laws to recognize hydrogen as a natural resource will reap the benefits of doing so.
“South Australia did it, and within 18 months, 30 hydrogen exploration blocks were requested,” she said, “As soon as other countries will do it, they will have similar results.”
For Gonzalez-Penagos, one of the greatest challenges for people working in hydrogen exploration is breaking the barrier of skepticism.
“I’m convinced that it’s our role as professionals to show that white hydrogen exists and represents a cheap option to explore,” he said.