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University Spin-Off to Begin Field Trial of Methanogenic Degradation of Heavy Oil Next Month

Researchers from Canada and the UK expect to begin field trials next month on the ability of anaerobic microbes to process in-situ heavy oil to produce methane—i.e., methanogenic degradation of heavy oil.

Scientists at Newcastle University, England, and the University of Calgary, Canada, have set up a company, Profero Energy Inc, to build on their recent research, which demonstrated how naturally-occurring microbes convert oil to methane over tens of millions of years. The team recently published a paper on their latest work in the journal Nature. (Earlier post.)

The research, led by Professor Ian Head and Dr Martin Jones of Newcastle University and Professor Steve Larter, who works at both Newcastle University and the University of Calgary, concluded that two types of microbe found in environments containing crude oil were responsible for converting it into methane.

First, bacteria called Syntrophus digest the oil and produce hydrogen gas and acetic acid. Secondly, methanogenic Archaea combine the hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce methane.

The research team also discovered that the geological timescale of this process could be shortened to a few hundred days in the laboratory by feeding the oil-based microbes with special nutrients. They reasoned that similar results could be obtained in an oilfield in a timescale of a year to tens of years.

Accordingly, Profero 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 to test the process.

The research we published was important scientifically because it settled an argument that has been running for decades about how oil is degraded in oilfields; it turns out it is converted to natural gas. 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

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 at economic cost by conventional means.

In North East England, similar processes may occur in abandoned coal mines, opening the door to a possible means for recovery of the region’s extensive abandoned energy resources as methane, said Professor Head.

Both Newcastle and Calgary universities have financial stakes in Profero Energy, which is being financed with an initial £500,000, and a further £4 million earmarked for the future, by Novotech Investments Ltd, a venture capital company which was established to provide backing for very high value new technologies.

In a couple of years time we should know a lot more about how this technology works in practice and what proportion of the oil which is currently unrecoverable could be converted to methane gas. Even a small fraction could be a very attractive commercial proposition.

—David Rafter, Profero CEO

In theory, the technology could also be used to produce hydrogen gas from inaccessible oil reserves, he said.

Profero Energy was established quickly following consultation between the scientists, the commercial development teams at Newcastle and Calgary universities, and Novotech. Newcastle University’s Business Development Directorate handled the intellectual property issues and brokered the financing deal with Novotech. The Directorate worked closely with IGNITE, University Technologies International’s company creation division, where Profero Energy is based. University Technologies International is the technology transfer, commercialization and incubation centre at the University of Calgary.

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.

—Robin Lockwood, Head of Commercial Development at Newcastle University



Harvey D

We should all trust that converting (in situ) reachable and unreachable heavy oil (and coal) into NG will be sucessful.

It would be great if that process could eventually (replace) or put an end to actual extraction of Alberta Tar Sands. A lot of GHG, water usage, ground and underground pollution could be avoided or reduced.

NG burns cleaner than oil and coal. The transport infrastructures are already in place.

Most ICE vehicles and even hybrids and PHEVs could easily be converted to use CNG instead of gasoline or diesel.

Coal fired power stations could also be converted to NG to reduce GHG and air pollution.

Almost too good to be true....but it is worth the effort.


"by feeding the oil-based microbes with special nutrients."

This is troubling. What "special nutrients" are going to be pumped into the ground? GM nutrients? Enviro impact? Longevity? A whole lot more disclosure is needed.

And while it may be desirable to increase NG yields to oil companies - it remains a NON-Renewable energy source.


When I see a technology like this, I always ask myself the same question: what will the extraction rate be?

If microbes would naturally digest that heavy oil into methane over the course of 10 million years and we were to accelerate that by 1,000x, we would extract 3 trillion barrels of oil over the next 10,000 years.

This translates into 300,000,000 barrels per year or about 822,000bpd.

Factors that would dictate how fast microbes could digest the oil: presence of nutrients (?), presence of toxins (oxygen, I'm assuming these are anaerobic suckers), presence of optimum temperature, and, importantly, surface area. Nutrients and toxins can be controlled. Surface area can be radically increased by drilling numerous maximum horizontal contact wells.

Every little bit helps...

Reality Czech
What "special nutrients" are going to be pumped into the ground?
The reservoir rocks are probably short of nitrate, and perhaps phosphate and potash also.

If the nutrient you're putting down the well is something as important, as say potassium, can you get that back out again?

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