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Texas Startup Is Creating Clean Hydrogen From Microbes and Old Oil Wells

Newsweek 10/5/2022 Pandora Dewan

A start-up in Texas is using microbes to produce clean hydrogen from depleted oil wells for less than $1 a kilogram.


Cemvita hopes that their new technology will support net-zero transition efforts by producing clean, energy-efficient fuel at low cost.

"Hydrogen now is in the spotlight more than it's ever been," Charles Nelson, chief business officer at Cemvita Factory Inc., told Newsweek. "It touches people's lives already in more ways than people know."

Hydrogen is used in the production of low carbon steel and chemical manufacturing processes, and it slowly being introduced as an alternative fuel for transportation.

"[Hydrogen is] an energy source with zero emissions at the point of consumption," Nelson said. It also has a higher energy density than most other fuels, including gasoline.

To produce energy, hydrogen can be reacted with oxygen in a fuel cell, or it can be used in an internal combustion engine, just like gasoline. When reacted in a fuel cell, the only emissions are water vapor and hot air.

However, most of the hydrogen produced is made from fossil fuels, which contributes significantly to global carbon-dioxide emissions.

In some cases, it is produced via electrolysis using renewable forms of energy, such as solar power and wind, but this is much more expensive.

Cemvita's proposal promises to produce clean hydrogen at a low cost without contributing to global carbon-dioxide emissions.

"We had this idea that we wanted to make clean hydrogen for under a dollar a kilogram," Nelson said. "We were able to achieve six-and-a-half times that production rate in the lab."

The technology uses an undisclosed species of microbe that is able to convert leftover oil into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The company began testing this concept in 2021 and has completed successful tests in the field. "The technology has really advanced rather quickly," Nelson said.

As well as costs from electricity or fossil fuels, most hydrogen production requires expensive equipment and production units.

"Really, the ground is our equipment, so we don't have to build anything new to be able to do this," Nelson said. "We just have to introduce our microbes and nutrients into the system, so our costs are very low.

"We're also not subject to huge volatile swings in energy prices or natural gas prices to produce our hydrogen, so it's a pretty consistent production cost as well. In a volatile world, it's a pillar of stability."

Stock footage of an oil well in Oman. Microbes can use the oil left in depleted oil wells to produce clean hydrogen. claffra/Getty © claffra/Getty Stock footage of an oil well in Oman. Microbes can use the oil left in depleted oil wells to produce clean hydrogen. claffra/Getty

To avoid releasing the carbon-dioxide byproduct into the atmosphere, the team has developed methods to capture the carbon that is produced during the process. It can then be used for other purposes such as carbonated drinks.

Nelson said: "We have a pretty low energy way of doing it, and all of that is factored into our production costs."

According to Nelson, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of depleted oil wells all over the world, from the North Sea to the United States.

"Eventually, these fields become uneconomic," Nelson said. "At that point in time, [the oil companies] decide to shut them down or abandon the field...But any given field can have billions of barrels left in it. We're converting the liquid oil that can't get out into a gas, that's hydrogen, which can."

When oil fields are left abandoned they start to leak methane, a greenhouse gas that is even more potent than carbon dioxide. "We're cleaning up the mess that's left behind," Nelson said.

"The infrastructure is already there. The damage is already done... We can allow it to serve a good purpose for the remainder of its life by producing clean, cheap hydrogen, without having to produce additional disturbances to the environment."

The impact of this process on local ecosystems will also be fairly minimal, according to Nelson: "The classes of microbes that we use are completely non-toxic to humans, animals and the environment, and they are completely contained."

The company hopes to begin commercial production next year. "Everyone is trying to find good hydrogen solutions to decarbonize their manufacturing processes," Nelson said. "We don't see the need for the environmentally conscious choice to be an economically inefficient one."

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