Gas is the new gold

Mining hydrogen with microbes

When Cemvita first coined the term ‘gold hydrogen’ in 2022, we thought it was a bit of a gimmick, a marketing stunt to differentiate themselves from the ‘green hydrogen’ hype. But as it turns out, mining hydrogen with microbes is a real gold mine.

In theory, it makes perfect sense. Fossil fuels are simply solar energy converted into hydrocarbons by organisms – plants, animals, and microbes – and stored underground. What better way to recover that energy than to use organic agents to release clean hydrogen gas directly from the earth?

But it has taken Cemvita four years to go from simple lab and field tests to commercialization of their process. First they had to optimize their genetically modified bacterial ‘soup’, which is mercifully easy to cultivate in large volumes. Then they had to perfect their patented method of injecting the microbes into old oil wells, where they feed on hydrocarbons and belch out gas. A critical factor in the extraction process was separating the hydrogen from other gasses, like methane and carbon dioxide, which are best left in the ground.

Hydrogen gas has the advantage of being clean and non-polluting, and can be burned directly as fuel or used in fuel cells to generate electricity. Because it burns at much higher temperatures than natural gas, it’s ideal for heavy industry, like making steel. And in both cases the only exhaust product is water vapour.

But until now, hydrogen had to be manufactured from chemical feedstocks or electrically extracted from water, making it costly to produce at scale. The ability to mine hydrogen from abandoned oil wells, making use of sunk costs and stranded assets, has dramatically changed the game. Now hydrogen gas can be produced in reliable quantities, at economical rates – to the delight of the oil companies.

And the microbes that make it possible are worth their weight in gold!

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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