Microbes vs. Peak Oil
November 17, 2004 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Real-Time Biological Natural Gas Generation. A research lab has discovered that microbes living in Wyoming's Powder River Basin are generating methane (natural gas) through their natural metabolism of local coal beds. In relation to the many Peak Oil discussions here, could be way to get more energy for the future. (via SpaceDaily.com)
posted by zoogleplex (22 comments total)
The technology sounds interesting, and is a way to reduce the need for foreign oil supplies. There is a big but however: this doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions one lick. This is important because methane is one of the ways favoured by Big Auto (esp GM) to make hydrogen. One joule from hydrogen from methane from coal will probably be a bigger net CO2 source than one from gasoline (energy is lost in each conversion step).

Further, some of the quotes in the article are, to put it mildly, disingenuous:
"The United States has enormous amounts of buried hydrocarbon reserves, many of which cannot be extracted in an economically or environmentally benign fashion with current technologies and production practices," said Mr. Pfeiffer.

"Any of these settings, given the right set of conditions, has the potential to produce biogenic methane in a long-term, sustainable fashion."
Coal and oil shales aren't usually on the list of sustainable energy sources. Coal is finite too, there's just a lot more of it in the continental US than there is petroleum (and the people selling it don't funnel the profits to terrorists).
posted by bonehead at 10:11 AM on November 17, 2004

I think what they're getting at as far as the potential here is that by introducing methanogenic bacteria into some of the more difficult-to-extract coal, oil, tar, and shale deposits, we could cheaply and efficiently get natural gas out of them through the sustainable biological reaction of the bacteria.

For instance, it might even work on oil fields that are currently incapable of economically producing petroleum. A "spent" well still contains oil, it's just not worth expending the energy to get it up out of the ground, as you'd use more energy to pull it up than is in the oil; perhaps we can develop ways to introduce these bacteria into the unprofitable oil strata and have them convert it into gas very inexpensively.

After all, they're bacteria that thrive in this environment. Give them a dark airless place full of hydrocarbons, and they will eat away to their, uh, DNA's content (they don't have hearts) and create lots of gas.

This would be "coal gassification" without the usual massive input of energy required for the conversion - we let the microbes do it for us instead of doing it in a lab or refinery.

I wonder if these microbes could be used to create bioreactors that do the same thing as the thermal polymerization system.

While I agree that coal and oil shales are finite and that this merely expends them in a different way, it may be far more economical to let the bacteria do our mining for us, as opposed to expending large amounts of oil energy to dig the stuff out of the ground and process it. I think that's worth a look, and may in fact offset the energy loss you quite correctly mention.

I'm not sure about the CO2 factor though, since I don't know how the bacteria metabolize the hydrocarbon. It may be that the process releases the O2 - these are anaerobic bacteria that release oxygen in some form (molecular or combined with something else, maybe sulfur) as waste, which is what filled our atmosphere with oxygen - and keeps all the C and H inside the process. Would have to research that metabolic process to see what else is released besides methane, so I can't answer with any certainty there.

However, although you're right about hydrogen being a Big Auto favorite, it's also possible to make fuel cells which use methane as the fuel directly - which may be more economical if this process can be exploited.
posted by zoogleplex at 10:34 AM on November 17, 2004

But is it produced at a quantity that would make a difference in peak oil.
posted by stbalbach at 10:58 AM on November 17, 2004

Don't get me wrong, turning coal into a hydrocarbon fuel could have very big upsides---China and the US (and Canada, UK, etc...) could become energy independent. This would, no doubt, be a net positive for the world, at least initially.

My point was that there will significant energy losses from coal to methane---I've never seen a bacterial conversion process that was much more than a few percent efficient---and further, that mole for mole, even if perfectly efficient, isn't any better for othe carbon cycle than current petrochemical sources. Carbon is still coming out of the ground and being turned into carbon dioxide.

This is an energy extraction technology, like a better oil platform, that allows the exploitation of a currently-difficult-to-access resource. It isn't, however a sustainable or a "green" one, as the spin in the article suggests.
posted by bonehead at 11:21 AM on November 17, 2004

It's dangerous news, in that it will tend to get picked up and trumpeted in a much more extreme fashion than it is in the lede, here.

Techno-optimists come in all stripes, but what they share is a core assumption that any serious problems raised by technology not only can, but will, be solved through technology. So far they've been right -- but often through a process of redefinition. That is, some technological breakthrough that is only tangential to the problem is construed as solving it; or some technical advance makes it feasible to do away with the part of life where the problem lives.

"Peak oil" is a troubling meme, to me, because while it appeals to my contingency-planner brain, and while I suspect that the core insight is probably valid, I suspect that it's wrong on a lot of details. To a scientist, that might not actually matter much; they're used to finding out they're wrong, it's just part of the process. But ordinary humans are conditioned for this non-existent beast called "absolute proof."

Peak oil is a political concept; and as such, it's vulnerable to spnnage. I expect this revelation will end up playing an inordinately large role in PR in coming years...
posted by lodurr at 11:33 AM on November 17, 2004

This is just another attempt the Oil and Gas industry, (read Bush Administration), is making to push the concept of Coal Bed Methane extraction as a good thing, instead of what it really is: An environmental disaster, contaminating the limited aquifers in the area, leaving huge ponds of toxic water, (killing all wildlife that enters it), using up huge quantities of water, in an arid region, etc.

Now if they'd like to stick a bunch of coal into a hopper, infuse it with their microbes, and generate it that way, well that's be OK by me. But I doubt that's what they have in mind.

A company whose founders have been in the oil and gas industry for over 30 years has a lot to learn about the meaning of the words "alternative energy".
posted by Windopaene at 11:47 AM on November 17, 2004

I'm with you completely, lodurr, and agree with you too bonehead. To me it's a potential contributor to dealing with the problem, certainly not some magic solution.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:48 AM on November 17, 2004

But is it produced at a quantity that would make a difference in peak oil.

rate of production is also important, and the demand side, which it seems to grow more than we thought.

I'll quote Charles T. Maxwell, a well known (he's 71!) Wall Street energy analyst. He wrote this for Barron's:

There will be many who claim that the root of the problem is that we are "running out of oil." This is not an accurate way to describe the situation. We are running out of the ability to produce 2% more barrels each year to meet world demand that increases about 2% annually.
posted by samelborp at 12:46 PM on November 17, 2004

The thing that concerns me about things like this, zoogleplex, is the link between methane and hydrogen that the automotive industry, particularly those in Detroit, are going to push as a "green" solution. This is like the ethanol-from-corn dodge that agrifoods like ADM keep trying to pull---the so-called "environmentally friendly" cure is worse than the cause.
posted by bonehead at 1:01 PM on November 17, 2004

I don't really buy into the Peak Oil hype but I found this article, The End of the Age of Oil interesting. It's from a professor of physics and vice provost at Caltech.
posted by euphorb at 1:06 PM on November 17, 2004

Yes, a most worthy concern, bonehead. That sort of thing is just "blue sky" crap to keep people unworried about the future, and to get government pork to prop up the auto industry, I think. It's not really viable in terms of realisting energy usage.

You know, all this peak oil crap would become moot if the US cut back on using 50% of the oil we consume - essentially, the entirety of our petroleum imports - burning fuel in our cars. Also, it would be interesting to see how much BOE energy it actually takes to manufacture ONE CAR - my guess is, probably 10 times the amount the car actually uses over its lifetime. But that's probably another thread.

euphorb, samelborp's quotation on the problem is a more accurate portrayal of the situation (as opposed to some extreme Peak Oil proponents), I think: demand keeps growing but production cannot keep up, and I don't think anybody's disputing that thought at this point, considering what's going on in the Middle East.
posted by zoogleplex at 1:11 PM on November 17, 2004

oops sorry, "realistic" energy usage. Sometimes me types too fast.
posted by zoogleplex at 1:12 PM on November 17, 2004

You know, all this peak oil crap would become moot if the US cut back on using 50% of the oil we consume

we all know the easiest way to do that. stop driving, or reduce your driving considerably. move out of the suburbs. c'mon people!
posted by mrgrimm at 2:33 PM on November 17, 2004

Metafilter: Real-Time Biological Natural Gas Generation
posted by Octaviuz at 4:20 PM on November 17, 2004

Is it hip and cool to call Peak Oil "crap, hype and bogus"? I want to be hip and cool.
posted by stbalbach at 4:32 PM on November 17, 2004

Well, I do my part, I ride a motorcycle.
posted by zoogleplex at 4:37 PM on November 17, 2004

I, for one, welcome our methane belching microable overlords.
posted by wfrgms at 6:18 PM on November 17, 2004

Excuse me, but "peak oil" can't be "crap, hype and bogus". Oil fields do peak, basins do peak, provinces and countries do peak, and the world oil will peak sometime. It is the effects of peak oil and its timing what it's being discussed, and it is in this discussion where you can find loony theories and such.

Peak of oil production is a well known fact, don't forget this.
posted by samelborp at 11:51 PM on November 17, 2004

I called it hype because I don't see it as a major concern facing humanity in the near term. Everyone realizes that oil reserves are finite. What is in dispute is how much of a problem this is.

The article I linked to was the most credible explanation of the issue I've seen. But I really see no reason to worry. We'll slowly shift away from using oil to other energy sources just as we shifted away from wood and coal in the past. Was there a Peak Coal movement in the 1800s? Why there is no Peak Zinc movement now? Commodities are funny like that.

I really can't tell you what the solution is but I can tell you that not having enough oil over the next 50 years is not one of our bigger worries.
posted by euphorb at 12:08 AM on November 18, 2004

Well, some of us disagree. And that's okay. But I will say that too much faith in technological solutions to very complex problems is dangerous.

And this from a Star Trek geek, who posted this "possible solution" in the first place.

Ah well. Time will certainly tell.
posted by zoogleplex at 9:48 AM on November 18, 2004

"Real time biological gas generation"? - Hey, I'm doing that right now. It must be the pecans I ate.
posted by troutfishing at 1:10 PM on November 18, 2004

Doesn't that suck about pecans? But still, a quality nut.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:11 PM on November 18, 2004

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