A village in the arid savannah of west Africa seems an unlikely place to mark the birth of an energy revolution. But If promoters of the next big thing in clean power are right, however, we may all remember the name of Bourakebougou in years to come.

That’s because the site 55 kilometers (34 miles) northwest of Mali’s capital Bamako was the first place on Earth powered by natural hydrogen (H2) — pure gas seeping from the ground, like crude oil or methane. The phenomenon is so anomalous that, until recently, few geologists had given it much thought. In 2011, Montreal-based Hydroma unplugged a water well near Bourakebougou cemented up in 1987 after the air rising from it caused an explosion. The exhalations turned out to be 98% hydrogen, which was then burned to provide electricity to the village.

That series of events seems to defy conventional geochemistry. Hydrogen is one of the most reactive elements — one reason it combines so readily with carbon to make fossil fuels. As a result, pure hydrogen is often assumed to be vanishingly rare in nature. Its role is so overlooked that gas chromatography — the process that chemists use to work out the composition of gaseous mixtures — typically uses hydrogen as a carrier material, making it impossible to detect in samples from underground wells.