Energy transition

Effort To Turn Black Gold Into Gold Hydrogen Approaches Biggest Test Yet

Cemvita and ChampionX are launching a pilot project next year to turn an old oil field into one that may yield tons of hydrogen each day.

A mobile fermentation unit that will be used in an upcoming field test to grow hydrogen-producing microbes.
Source: Cemvita, Gold H2.

Two Houston-based companies are collaborating to convert an aging oil field in Canada into one of the world’s newest hydrogen-producing assets.

This week, oilfield chemistry and logistics specialist ChampionX and Cemvita, a microbiology firm operating through its wholly owned subsidiary Gold H2, announced the partnership.

Their big goal is to prove that a well currently producing just a few barrels of oil per day can be quickly converted into ones that produce up to 1 tonne of hydrogen per day.

The pilot is slated to begin in the first quarter of next year with an undisclosed operator and aims for completion by year's end. The chosen field in Canada is producing small volumes of crude while under a waterflood. The plan is to begin treatments in one injector-producer well pair before expanding to several wells in the field.

ChampionX will be involved in field operations and the deployment of the technology.

Cemvita’s recently spun up Gold H2 business will contribute a unique blend of microbes and nutrients designed to create a subsurface ecosystem from which hydrogen can be economically pumped out for more than a decade.

The energy-focused biotech company is calling the result of the process “gold hydrogen” and is projecting an all-in cost of less than $1/kg. The figure compares favorably to the $5–7/kg cost to produce blue hydrogen and $5–12/kg for green hydrogen.

Cemvita adds that about 20% of its total production cost will involve sequestering the CO2 that is a byproduct of microbial process. To mitigate its potential environmental impact, the CO2 must be reinjected into the reservoir or another storage interval as part of the overall process.

If the pilot proves out, the firms hope more operators will embrace the emerging biotechnology and redefine the role of brownfields in the energy landscape.

“The gold hydrogen concept really began by asking ourselves if we could actually turn the reservoir into a bioreactor. If you can do that, then you also think about leveraging the oil and gas industry’s existing talent and infrastructure—of which the reservoir itself is a part,” said Moji Karimi, a cofounder and CEO of Cemvita.

The announcement follows Cemvita’s successful test using a single vertical well in the Permian Basin of Texas last year. This initial work showed the feasibility of the approach but also revealed the need to maximize reservoir contact to promote hydrogen production, hence why the next project involves a waterflood operation.

Other companies are also pursuing geologically sourced hydrogen using a variety of techniques in Spain, Australia, and elsewhere in Canada. However, Cemvita is the only among them to be pursuing a microbial solution.

To that end, a key innovation in the Canadian pilot is Cemvita's mobile fermentation unit, which was designed to cultivate enough of the microbial solution to support up to 50 wells.

Karimi likened the technology to that used in agricultural processes. “As long as you have the seeds, you can grow it, and that means we don’t have to ship volumes of microbial fluids across the country.”

He added that extensive screening is necessary to ensure reservoir compatibility with hydrogen-generating microbes. Factors including temperature, porosity, permeability, salinity, and water chemistry are all crucial.

“There's also competing reactions happening in the subsurface, so in the package, we have nutrients for our microbes, but we also have inhibitors for other microbes that we don't want to grow such as sulfate-reducing bacteria that produce H2S,” Karimi explained.

Next steps for Cemvita’s Gold H2 business include more work at its lab in Houston where it has built a 10,000-psi sandpack system to test the performance of microbes under different reservoir and waterflooding conditions. The company said it is also developing a biogeochemical model that can be integrated into reservoir models, considered critical to helping operators predict the effects of the microbial activity.