These microbes eat oil and 'poop' the world's cheapest clean hydrogen

The naturally occurring subsurface micro-organisms consume the carbon inside the fossil fuels, releasing 20 to 50 tonnes of hydrogen per field in the process.
Deena Theresa
Cemvita's oil-eating, hydrogen-excreting microbes can turn depleted oil wells into clean hydrogen production facilities.
Cemvita's oil-eating, hydrogen-excreting microbes can turn depleted oil wells into clean hydrogen production facilities.

Cemvita

A US start-up, Cemvita Factory, backed by investors like Mistubishi and United Airlines, promises to produce clean "gold" hydrogen at less than US$1/kg through an interesting technique.

The Texan company intends to pump special microbes into depleted and abandoned oil and gas wells, where they'll eat and excrete oxygen.

"Gold Hydrogen is a novel source of carbon neutral hydrogen produced from depleted oil reservoirs that are ready for plug and abandonment, extending the life of wells that would otherwise be a significant burden," a press release from the company states.

Initially, when they're tapped, the oil wells start at maximum production. The process slows down when it costs more energy to extract the remaining oil than you can sell it for. This leaves excess left in depleted wells. Cemvita wants to utilize this and turn all these wells into biological hydrogen farms.

According to Cemvita Factory, the naturally occurring subsurface microorganisms consume the carbon inside the fossil fuels, releasing 20 to 50 tonnes of hydrogen per field in the process, resulting in the "lowest possible cost of hydrogen production today and the largest players in the energy and industrial sector have taken serious notice".

These microbes eat oil and 'poop' the world's cheapest clean hydrogen
The process.

From lab to field

Cemvita starts work in the lab, modifying the microorganisms genetically. The scientists "increased microbe performance by six and a half times the rate needed to produce hydrogen at $1/kg, a key milestone necessary to advance the program toward commercialization".

The company also stresses that they're "actively" engaging with regulatory agencies regarding the application of genetically engineered microbes. "In some cases, since we are only enhancing the natural ability of microorganisms (for example, by increasing the copy number of genes that already exist), the microbes are not considered genetically modified. Regulatory assessment is included as a deliverable for our projects," the website says.

Once the performance was enhanced, it was time to try them out in an actual well. For this, Cemvita an oil production company operating in the Permian basin in West Texas where the team successfully measured hydrogen concentrations three orders of magnitude above baseline.

"In a very short time frame, we moved our microbes from the lab to the field. The hydrogen production in this trial exceeded our expectations," said Zach Broussard, Director of Gold H2 at Cemvita. "As we continue to use hydrogen-producing microbes downhole, we anticipate we can achieve rates that will translate to hydrogen production at $1/kg or less."

Could "carbon neutral" hydrogen limit sales?

Next, Gold Hydrogen will attempt to commercialize its technology through a mixture of licensing, joint ventures, and ownership of hydrogen-producing assets.

But there are risks. New Atlas reported that the company would first have to convince regulators that its microbes are safe for use and will not tamper with the environment.

Secondly, Cemvita relies on carbon capture and storage to ensure that its hydrogen is "carbon neutral". According to New Atlas, this could limit sales as regulations get more stringent in the long run. Lastly, Cemvita requires oil wells to advance its plan further. It will have to license the technology to or partner with oil companies to get its microbes up and running to work.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Cemvita continues its mission to reimagine the heavy industries for the net-zero economy.

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