TrendMicrobes may allow for extraction of more -- and cleaner -- coal, oil

Published 27 June 2007

A Maryland start-up looks to ways to harness microbiology to achieve both energy independence and cleaner environment

The desire for energy independence and the urge to contain climate change and reverse global warming may go hand-in-hand in the longer run, as growing investments in alternative energy production methods result in technologies which are more efficient and more cost-effective than alternative energy approaches currently available. In the short run, however, the desire for energy independence and the desire for a cleaner environment may conflict, as the case of coal shows. The United States has huge depoits of coal, and there is now a move in Congress to declare coal an alternative energy and funnel large government subsidies to shift more energy production to coal. Among the proposed inducements winding through House and Senate committees: loan guarantees for six to ten major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion; a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020; automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel; and permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel.

There are some who do not see a necessary conflict between energy independence and cleaner environment, and they suggest that microbes dwelling in oil fields and coal beds could inspire new methods of extracting fossil fuels from the depths of the earth, and produce cleaner fossil fuels as well. Among the proponents of this approach is Ari Patrinos, a genomics pioneer who helped run the Human Genome Project and is now the president of the Rockville, Maryland-based Synthetic Genomics, a biotech startup. The goal of the company is to use genomics to develop new energy technologies. Technology Review’s Emily Singer reports that in collaboration with oil behemoth BP, Synthetic Genomics is now studying microbes which naturally feed off hydrocarbons for clues into biological means of extracting and processing oil and coal.

Patrinos says that microbes play a crucial role in the carbon cycle, and that more than 50 percent of living biomass on the planet is microbial in nature. These facts can serve as a basis for using microbes in the energy cycle. For example, there are huge reserves of heavy oils in the North American continent, but the extraction of these reserves is difficult, requiring energy and water, and with the resulting production of a lot of carbon dioxide. “There may be ways to use microbial communities to improve the quality of the oil while still in the subsurface,” says Patrinos. He adds that the idea of oil fields as a reservoir that can be tapped at will is naive. Oil exists as a matrix in different layers. When we produce oils from wells, we leave as much as 50 percent behind. Microbes may be used to change the density of the hydrocarbons, breaking them up so they are smaller and making the oil easier to move. Microbes may also be used to change the surface-adherence properties of the oil by modifying the hydrocarbon molecules.

Which brings us to coals: For coal beds, “rather than extract the coal and burn it, which produces a lot of carbon dioxide, maybe there is a way to convert it into methane,” says Patrinos. “[Burning] methane produces carbon dioxide but also hydrogen, which is a very clean and more climate-friendly fuel. Eventually, perhaps we can combine production of methane with carbon sequestration, so the net release into the atmosphere would be zero.”

Patrinos says that to date, all improvements in the quality of oil was achieved by using chemistry. “But most of what chemistry can do may be even better accomplished with biological means that are much cheaper and more ecologically friendly…. this revolution in biology has revealed that biochemical pathways will ultimately be the most productive and can perform the task in a more environmentally-friendly way. Biochemical reactions can be performed at lower temperatures and pressures, and ultimately may have fewer toxic byproducts.”