Ruth Mitchell

Scientists aim to boost world energy supply with microbes

Energy trapped in the world’s abandoned oil deposits could be recovered thanks to work carried out by scientists in the North East. An estimated six trillion barrels of oil remain underground because the oil has become either solid or too thick to be brought to the surface by conventional means.

Recent research from scientists at Newcastle University and the University of Calgary, Canada, has demonstrated how naturally-occurring microbes convert oil to natural gas (methane) over tens of millions of years. The researchers have now set up a company, Profero Energy Inc, to build on this knowledge. The company is preparing to move on-site to begin pumping a special mixture of nutrients, dissolved in water, down an oil well above exhausted oil deposits in western Canada. If the scientists’ calculations are correct, natural gas should flow back out, as the microbes thrive on the nutrients, multiply, and digest the tar-like oil at a greatly increased rate.

Professor Ian Head, an environmental microbiologist in the Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability at Newcastle University, said: “The discovery of how this process works could have major implications for the oil and gas industry because we think we will be able to extend the 20-30 year operating lifespan of a typical oil reservoir.”

Professor Head said that similar processes may occur in abandoned coal mines. If so, this could open the door to a possible means for recovery of the North East’s abandoned energy resources as clean-burning methane.

Robin Lockwood, Head of Commercial Development at Newcastle University, said: “This groundbreaking research clearly had commercial potential and we knew that we had to act quickly and decisively to take full advantage. “The days when universities did the research and left the private sector to develop the commercial potential are long gone. These days, governments expect universities to play a major role in economic development and that means being much more savvy about commercial opportunity.”

For more information about the research and the process involved, visit www.ncl.ac.uk.

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