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
D. M. Jones, I. M. Head, N. D. Gray, J. J. Adams, A. K. Rowan, C. M. Aitken, B. Bennett, H. Huang, A. Brown, B. F. J. Bowler, T. Oldenburg, M. Erdmann & S. R. Larter; “Crude-oil biodegradation via methanogenesis in subsurface petroleum reservoirs”; Nature, Published online 12 December 2007 doi: 10.1038/nature06484