Skip to content

Startup Uses Microbes To Turn Black Gold Into Green Energy

It’s no secret that oil production is a major contributor to carbon emissions and climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2021, petroleum accounted for about 36% of U.S. energy consumption. It was also the source of nearly half (46%) of total annual U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But even oil has specific properties that can be used to advance the cause of cleaner and greener energy.

Those properties include oil-eating microbes used to produce hydrogen, a much cleaner-burning fuel than oil. One company that aims to turn those microbes into green energy — and profits — is Cemvita Factory, a Houston-based biotech backed by Occidental Petroleum. 

Last year, the firm completed successful tests of its microbe technology on a pair of old oil wells in the Permian Basin in West Texas, Bloomberg reported. In continued growth, it signed a strategic partnership with Arizona Lithium, a mining company, in November 2022. 

The company also formed a new subsidiary that will deploy the technology at oil wells around the U.S., aiming to produce hydrogen at the cost of $1 per kilogram and then selling it at market prices. And thanks to tax credits signed into law as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, Cemvita will get an additional $3 per kilogram of revenue.

Photo Courtesy Cemvita  

“Three dollars a kilogram is a very meaningful number,” Charles Nelson, Cemvita’s chief business officer, told Bloomberg in a 2022 interview. “It’s going to enable us to deploy this more rapidly. It’s really a catalyst for the business.”

Cemvita was co-founded in 2017 by Moji Karimi, a carbon-negative entrepreneur who serves as CEO. His sister Dr. Tara Karimi, a biotechnologist and scientist, is the company’s chief technology officer.

As Forbes reported earlier this year, Tara Karimi began studying the possibilities of microbes while working as an academic researcher. At the time, Moji Karimi was working with a firm that wanted to sequence the DNA of microbes living in oil and gas wells. The two siblings began thinking about how to use their science and technology expertise to battle climate change.

Photo Courtesy Cemvita  

That eventually led to the formation of Cemvita with a focus on bringing biotechnology to the energy transition. The company’s stated mission is to “reimagine heavy industries such as oil & gas and mining for the net-zero economy.” It aims to do so through the sustainable extraction of natural resources, carbon-negative production of chemicals, and closed-loop renewal of waste as feedstock.

Much of the firm’s early work has focused on using unrecovered oil to test the effect of microbes on hydrocarbons. A team was dispatched to research microbes that can transform residual oil into sustainable products and applications. The process involved screening various microbes and then identifying the ones that might be able to adapt and survive in an oil field.

This work led to the discovery of a strain of microbes that could produce hydrogen as they consumed oil, which in turn led to the idea of turning CO2-emitting oil into clean hydrogen.

“Our team loves discovery,” Moji Karimi told Forbes in an interview. “It’s the beauty of the research: You start with solving one challenge, and then you uncover something bigger.” 

According to Cemvita’s website, the company has three business lines: cOre Biomining, Gold H2, and eCO2 Biomanufacturing.

Photo Courtesy Cemvita 

The cOre Biomining business aims to harness the potential of biolixiviants to increase a mine’s production, cut its costs, and lower its environmental footprint. Gold H2, or Gold Hydrogen, is extracted from existing oil and gas sites and is used to convert leftover hydrocarbons from subsurface wells into usable hydrogen while also capturing and storing carbon dioxide. Cemvita’s eCO2 technology converts carbon emissions into materials designed to reduce costs and add value to customers.

These applications should find plenty of demand in the oil and gas industry and state governments because they allow for new purposes for capped wells and tapped-out oil fields. Converting the remaining oil into hydrogen is a way to extend the wells’ usefulness.

“A lot of these reservoirs are abandoned, they’re in the custody of the state, they’re orphaned and waiting to be cleaned up,” Nelson said in Wired.


Back To Top