First up is a study that uses microbes to free heavy oil and change it into natural gas.  An international team centered at the University of Calgary, which is close to the Canadian heavy oil deposits in Alberta is showing how crude oil deposits are naturally broken down by microbes in the reservoir.  The discovery is about a naturally occurring process that may change the way heavy oil and oil sands are produced.

The study examines and suggests an understanding of how crude oil biodegrades into methane or natural gas.  That process might lead to in reservoir extraction of the resultant natural gas, sparing the environment the customary methods which can be open pit extraction, hugely costly reservoir heating systems, and steam generation, all of which are expensive, use a great percentage of the gained fuel for extraction, and pollute and necessitate surface environmental changes.

Biodegradation is already a problem in heavy oil reservoirs now.  Naturally occurring bacteria consume the oil leaving it viscous and laden with sulfur, that also complicates the refining process.

The discovery that matters is the realization that anaerobic bacteria cause fermentation, offsetting the prior thinking that aerobic bacteria were directly degrading the oil. Thus, using microbiological research, laboratory experiments and oilfield site case studies the team demonstrated the anaerobic degradation of the hydrocarbons to produce methane.

With the understanding of the process in hand the team is looking to speed up the process from a natural rate of millions of years to 10 years.  That would dramatically change the heavy oil extraction picture.   The oil industry only gets about 17% of the heavy oil reserves now making the new discovery an extremely interesting tool.  With 6 trillion (yes trillion, 7 times mans use to date) barrels of known heavy oil reserves, this caliber of technology is much more than attractive.

The biodegradation process also offers a new tool to predict where the less biodegradable oil is located providing a way to narrow the focus to the better reservoir locations where recovery is already underway.  Another factor is the discovery of an intermediate step in the biodegradation process.  Another family of microbes produces carbon dioxide and hydrogen from the partially degraded oil before the methane formation.  This allows the capture of the CO2 as methane, which could be recycled back into the process making a closed loop system.

Offers for trials of reservoirs are in hand, with a full field installation likely starting in 2009.

That’s big news.  An even single digit reservoir recovery improvement on a 6 trillion barrel reserve is a huge amount of product.  The team findings are available at Nature’s website.

A new analysis of using existing technology to produce bulk chemical feedstocks can reduce the use of petroleum.  B.G. Hermann and colleagues analyzed current and future technology routes to 15 base bulk chemicals.  The team is asserting that soon, advances will allow chemical manufacturing the choice of petroleum sources and bio-mass derived sources.  The main claim is that a shift to bio-mass sources will reduce CO2 by 500-1000 tons annually in a 100% shift scenario.

I find the study worthy of note not so much for the carbon emission claims but for the potential to recycle a larger part of the incredible amounts of waste that mankind is piling up.  These gentlemen’s study might spark an innovation by someone else in connecting with other technologies such as Frank Pringle’s microwave degrader.  Frank won one of Popular Science’s top innovation awards with this device.


On the other hand, with most of the petroleum being used for fuels in heating and transport this field is likely still economically in the wilderness.  As transport and heating fuels find alternatives the price of oil will come down and the prospects should be directed to environmentally clean recycling.




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