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An Unusual Potential Ally In The U.S. Shale Boom

An Unusual Potential Ally In The U.S. Shale Boom

The shale boom that made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of oil and gas is about to come to halt as the U.S. shale sector is witnessing a series of defaults due to rising driller debts and expiring hedges.

The collapse in oil prices has further added to the miseries of U.S. shale industry. In these difficult and testing times, there is something that might just give a breather to the U.S. shale industry and may even prolong the shale boom, and the innovation comes not from the field of engineering, but from microbiology.

There are microbes that are believed to have evolved and survived in the extreme depths of around 7,000 feet, and they might just provide what U.S. shale industry badly needs: a low cost oil and gas recovery technique.

Can microbes enable us to frack more oil?

These microbes have the potential to provide more natural gas from wells. However, it is essential that these microbes have a food source with which they can survive in such extreme depths. Related: Top 6 Myths Driving Oil Prices Down

Scientists have known about a group of bacteria that could help clean up oil spills. The bacteria Oliespira Antarctica is capable of degrading oil by forming a bloom, thereby minimizing the effects of an oil spill. In a similar way, it is now possible that scientists could find microbes living in deep shale rocks. “Finding life at depths like that would be amazing,” said Tim Carr of West Virginia University.

Some interesting research collaborations on the study of earth -microbes

The Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory (MSEEL) has initiated an $11 million project that would enable the Department of Energy and researchers to monitor the fracking wells drilled by a company located in Charleston called Northeast Natural Energy for the next five years.

The point of the project is to learn more about the role of microbes in deep shale wells. The potential advantage to drillers is the fact that microbes produce something called ‘biosurfactants’ that can make the process of pumping oil and natural gas much easier by increasing the porosity of shale rock. Related: China Getting Serious About Solar Energy

There are challenges and it may actually be difficult to find the microbes due to difficult conditions such as intense heat and extreme darkness. If microbes do live down below, they would require an adaptation known as ‘osmoprotectant’ that would save them from concentrated salts in the rocks.

Problems associated with microbes

Although there is the possibility of increasing the drilling output with help of earth microbes, there are some of the problems associated with these tiny creatures. According to Paula Mouser of Ohio State University, the tiny earth-microbe is the ‘next frontier’ for the U.S. shale industry, but has its share of problems. Related: Recession Risk Mounting For Canada

First, microbes can corrode drilling equipment. And while they have the potential to increase rock porosity, they can also have a countervailing negative effect – they can clog rock fractures and thereby prevent the smooth flow of oil and gas. Therefore, researchers and scientists need to effectively tap the benefits derived from the earth microbes and at the same time minimize their harmful effects. “We don’t know much about life at these depths in rock, 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,” said Mouser.

With rising drilling costs and falling crude oil prices, the oil and gas industry is in desperate need of newer technologies that can effectively recover the remaining untapped natural gas from tight shale rocks. Only time will tell as to what role bacteria and microbes could help in tapping this unrecovered gas.

By Gaurav Agnihotri for Oilprice.com

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