Biotech Firm To Create Gold Hydrogen by Injecting Microbes Into Depleted Oil Reservoirs

Houston-based startup Cemvita Factory is launching a project to produce near-zero-carbon gold hydrogen by injecting oil-eating microbes into depleted crude reservoirs.

Source: Getty Images.

Houston biotech startup Cemvita Factory is partnering with US gas-equipment manufacturer Chart Industries Inc. to produce gold hydrogen by injecting oil-eating microbes into depleted crude oil reservoirs that might otherwise be plugged and abandoned.

If successful, what Cemvita calls its “Gold Hydrogen Project” could open a new, ecofriendly revenue stream for the fossil fuel industry, according to a news release issued by the company on 17 February at the 2nd American Hydrogen Forum held in Houston.

The US- and Canada-based engineering consultancy, EXP, as well as the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future, are also involved in the project which aims to produce low-to-no-carbon gold hydrogen at a cost Cemvita claims would be 4 to 6 times lower than the cost of producing low-carbon green hydrogen from renewable energy.

Gold hydrogen exists underground in nature and is thus carbon free because it is not subject to any manufacturing process as compared to other fuels on the hydrogen color spectrum: gray (produced from coal or natural gas); blue (coal or natural gas with carbon capture); and green (derived from water electrolysis).

Companies in Spain and South Australia are currently exploring for gold hydrogen using traditional mining and gas production techniques.

Europe’s Helios Aragon project has gotten the green light to explore and drill for gold hydrogen and naturally occurring helium in Spain through 2026 in two permit areas. The project is using 1960s data obtained when exploration drillers lost circulation after encountering very high volumes of hydrogen gas at a depth of 3600 m in one of the permit areas, according to Helios Aragon’s website.

While the industry had earlier doubted that gold hydrogen could accumulate underground in sufficient quantities to make its mining profitable, it is now known that hydrogen and helium can accumulate in commercial quantities if it is under a well-sealed caprock.

Helios Aragon aims to establish Spain as a hydrogen hub, which would also provide storage for domestically produced green hydrogen. Given the EU’s emphasis on hydrogen as a low-carbon energy source, the project has attracted high-profile partners including the UK’s Durham University and private-equity investment from the Ascent Hydrogen Fund.

Similarly, Cemvita, an innovator in developing low-carbon microbial solutions for energy and mineral extraction, is developing its gold hydrogen project under a similar model that aims to transform Houston into a hydrogen hub for the US and is seeking to attract additional partners and investors to build out an industry.

The uniqueness of the US project is the technology involved.

While Europe and Australia are focused on traditional gas and mineral extraction methods, Cemvita plans to utilize a cocktail of natural and genetically engineered microbes that require supplemental nutrients—like those found in depleted oil reservoirs—to fill reservoirs marked for abandonment with gold hydrogen, thus extending reservoir life.

The company also develops software solutions such as its carbon dioxide (CO2) utilization platform that mimics photosynthesis to produce nutrients and pharmaceutics for deep space exploration, industrial chemicals, and polymers for energy sustainability.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Cemvita CEO Moji Karimi said that the process can produce 3 kg (6.6 lb) of hydrogen for every barrel of oil consumed, at a cost of $1.00/kg.

By comparison, windpower-based water electrolysis costs between $4.00 and $6.00/kg, according to figures quoted by Bloomberg from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Cemvita Factory’s work on building an alliance to commercialize gold hydrogen and to transform heavy industries for a net-zero economy shows how Houston companies can lead in low-carbon energy innovation,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future.