Could shale-dwelling micro-organisms help fracking?

Microbes in a laboratory
Source: DollarPhotoClub

The Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory, or MSEEL, is using a $11 million grant to study microbes inhabiting shale formations to see if they could be of use to shale exploration companies.

Hundreds of millions of years-old microscopic organisms, which have evolved to live in the shale 7,000 feet below the ground, at pressures 600 times that of the surface, and temperatures around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, could have properties that are of value to the people living on the earth’s crust.

One of these properties is the ability to produce methane, the primary component of natural gas. The idea is that if we feed these organisms and provide them with an environment in which they will thrive, they could enhance the amounts of the extractable methane.

“Imagine a situation where you could actually enhance methane recovery or methane production by providing organisms at these depths what they need to live,” said Paula Mouser, assistant professor of engineering at Ohio State University.

Other interesting qualities of these microbes include osmoprotectants, which would protect them from the high concentration of salt, and which – if isolated in a laboratory – could be used in the pharmaceutical industry to better deliver medicines into the human bloodstream.

Such organisms also produce chemical compounds called biosurfactants, which can make it easier to pump oil and natural gas by causing the shale to become more porous. The chemical compounds help the microbes consume carbon, which they need to build cells and survive.

They also have some features that are detrimental to the oil and gas industry. They can corrode drilling equipment and clog the rock fractures needed for oil and gas to flow.

The problem at this stage, however, is not so much how to harness the microbes’ properties, but rather to find out whether they even exist in the shale deposits.

Not everybody is convinced. The microbes would need to be able to survive incredible conditions, living amid tight and crushing rock, blind darkness and intense heat, packed into higher concentrations of salt than the ocean. This is not impossible, but not that likely either.

So far the researchers have obtained samples containing such bacteria bubbling up from other oil and gas drilling wells, but – as the samples were collected after fracking had taken place – it is not certain whether the organisms were there to begin with, or whether the were introduced during the fracturing process.

This is why this time round drilling samples will be collected before any fracturing work takes place. Hopefully, this will give the scientists a clearer picture of what lives in the shale rock far below.

“We don’t know much about life at these depths in rock,” Mouser said. “And the oil and gas industry doesn’t have a good handle on how small organisms like microbes and bacteria can help oil and gas recovery.”

Source: Sun Herald

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