Texas-based Cemvita promises clean hydrogen for less than US$1/kg, after testing a fascinating new technique in the lab and in the field. The idea is to pump specially grown microbes into depleted oil wells, where they will eat oil and excrete hydrogen.
Humans have been harnessing tiny single-celled and multi-celled organisms to get work done for far longer than we know they were. The first beers known to history were brewed around 13,000 years ago, consistently using a microscopic fungus called yeast, and its habit of eating sugars and starches and excreting carbon dioxide and ethanol. It’s about 7,000 years before recorded history was known to history.
Microbes can be incredibly hard workers – Louis Pasteur described yeast’s work on glucose as the equivalent of a 200 pound person chopping two million pounds of wood in two days. But their ability to party is also essential; in two days under the right conditions, 100 yeast cells can multiply into 400 billion.
Now that humans are beginning to master genetic engineering, a vast array of other possibilities are opening up. And with the rise of artificial intelligence, it’s becoming easier than ever for scientists to pinpoint the bits of genetic code responsible for a microbe’s desirable behaviors, and repeat those sections to optimize these little creatures for performance. increasingly higher.
One company engaged in such work is Cemvita, which is currently focusing on microbes that feed on hydrocarbons – especially crude oil – and ferment them, excreting hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, it’s not accurate to describe this release as a burp or a fart – trust me, nothing would make me happier, but in this case the gases simply bubble through the cell walls without any celebratory sounds.
This corresponds perfectly to the operation of oil wells; they begin at maximum production when first mined, sometimes even sprouting from the earth under pressure. But then things gradually decrease until it costs more energy to push or extract the remaining oil than you can sell it. This leaves plenty of oil in depleted wells, as well as practical infrastructure in place at each project. Cemvita wants to turn all these wells into bio-hydrogen farms.
So he probably stops at the top of the well, before pumping a bunch of specially bred microbes from its murky depths into a stream of recycled water. The microbes get to work, feasting, excreting and multiplying, and Cemvita captures the gases as they exit from the top of the well, separating them into hydrogen for processing and sale, and carbon dioxide for sequestration. The company is able to send nutrients and inhibitors down the well to keep things under control and moving in the right direction.
Cemvita started out in the lab, genetically modifying microorganisms, but trying not to go far enough to classify them as genetically modified.
“We are actively collaborating with regulatory agencies (such as the EPA) regarding the application of genetically engineered microbes,” reads the company’s website. “In some cases, since we are only enhancing the natural ability of microorganisms (for example by increasing the number of copies of already existing genes), the microbes are not considered genetically modified. Regulatory assessment is included as deliverable for our projects.”
The team set their sights on the economic goal of producing hydrogen at less than $1/kg, and their oil-munching microbes quickly exceeded their performance goals, becoming six and a half times better at their job than this. Cemvita had anticipated they would need to do. be.
From there, it was time to try them out in a real oil well. Cemvita teamed up with an oil production company operating in the Permian Basin in West Texas and stuck a small test load of microbes into a depleted well. The results: hydrogen levels three times higher than the reference value.
“In a very short time,” Zach Broussard, Gold H2 Manager at Cemvita, said in a press release, “we moved our microbes from the lab to the field. The hydrogen production in this trial exceeded our expectations. As we continue to use hydrogen-producing microbes downhole, we anticipate that we will be able to achieve rates that result in hydrogen production at $1/kg or less.
So an oil company’s stranded asset becomes a very low-effort – and very, very cheap – source of hydrogen. At less than a dollar per kilogram (2.2 lb) – before subsidies – it could be one of the cheapest H2s in the world. And the raw materials will not be lacking; Cemvita points out that to meet the Paris climate goals, some 60% of the world’s known oil reserves will have to stay in the ground.
So what are the risks? Well, they are mostly regulatory. First, the company will need to convince regulators that its microbes are safe to use and will not cause unintended environmental consequences.
Second, you may have noticed that Cemvita cannot call its product “green” hydrogen, likely due to the carbon dioxide that is released as part of the process. Instead, he calls it “golden” hydrogen and relies on carbon capture and storage to ensure his hydrogen is “carbon neutral.” This can limit sales as regulations tighten in the long run.
Third, we are concerned about the business model. Cemvita needs old oil wells to advance its plan, so where it can’t buy those wells, it will have to license the technology or partner with oil companies to run its microbes. Oil companies must be thrilled with the idea – there would be enough dollar signs spinning in their eyeballs from these long-depreciated assets to knock off their ten-gallon hats.
But for this to be good news for the planet, we will have to trust these oil companies to dutifully capture and permanently store all the carbon dioxide that comes out of their wells. Either that or we’ll have to trust environmental regulators — in Texas, no less, to begin with — to hold these oil companies to their promises. I don’t feel a ton of confidence in my heart, but hey, that’s just me.
Either way, it’s a fascinating piece of technology that seems to have a lot of money behind it, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Watch a short video below.
Gold hydrogen is a new source of carbon-neutral hydrogen
Source: Cemvita via Recharge