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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Creating and Harvesting Natural Gas

Creating and Harvesting Natural Gas

Luca Technologies harnesses natural processes to sustainably produce natural gas.  The Golden, Colo. based company has developed a process to generate and then extract more natural gas from depleted coalbed methane wells by injecting water, microbes, and nutrients into the coal seams. The company is now pursuing permitting in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to expand pilot testing of its technology.

Luca CEO Robert Pfeiffer says he anticipates that Luca will get permits for larger-scale pilot projects of “restoring” existing wells in the next four to six months.  Luca, one of many start-up companies pursuing technologies to make fossil fuels cleaner has acquired 1,350 coalbed methane wells, which have been sold by their original owners because they are no longer productive enough.

The principle Luca exploits is anaerobic microbes living in subsurface coal, gas, oil and shale reserves for millions of years, feeding on hydrogen-rich organic matter and producing natural gas. Commercial drilling and extraction exposes these anaerobic microorganisms to oxygen by taking water out of the formations and removing essential nutrients that support microbial growth. As a result, the production of biogenic natural gas slows or in some cases ceases. Over time, water is replaced in the geologic formation by natural recharge providing an environment that allows the microbes to once again produce natural gas at low rates.

Luca uses its proprietary technology to restore formation habitats to conditions that enable existing microbes to produce economically significant rates of natural gas at accelerated production volumes.  Then the company harvests this newly created natural gas and delivers it to the national grid via the existing pipeline from the pre depletion era of the wells.

Harvesting Natural gas
Luca Technologies Underground Process.

Unlike the oil and gas industry’s extraction methods in which production peaks then steeply declines as stored hydrocarbons are depleted, Luca “gas farms” can reliably produce low-cost clean energy for decades and reuse existing wells and infrastructure to create, extract and transport the natural gas.

How big a deal could this be?  Pfeiffer explains, “Farming” natural gas from depleted wells in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana alone could produce more gas than the annual consumption in the U.S., said Pfeiffer. Microbes have converted one-hundredth of 1 percent of the coal into methane in existing wells. Luca has reached 3 percent conversion in its labs, which would not happen in actual wells but it reflects the potential of the process.  It could be a very big deal indeed.

The potential, which raised $76 million in equity in late 2008 for Luca, of tapping this stranded natural gas in coalbed methane wells is significant.

When Luca identifies a depleting area or well as a natural gas farming candidate, it withdraws water from the well, transfers it to a mobile nutrient module to replenish essential vitamins and nutrients vital to sustaining microbial community health. The water is then recycled back into the well through existing infrastructure and the mobile nutrient module is moved to other wells to provide nourishment to new subsurface habitats.

Luca then temporarily shuts in the well for an average of one month to allow natural microbial populations to flourish. During this “dwell” period, the now activated microbes begin producing significant amounts of natural gas. Luca harvests the natural gas using the existing system. This cycle of restoration and harvesting enables Luca to produce natural gas from depleting wells for decades.

Its long been known that a portion of natural gas is produced by naturally occurring subsurface microorganisms. Luca’s founders discovered that certain coalbeds, organic-rich shales and oil and gas reserves were teeming with microbial life capable of producing economic and commercially significant volumes of natural gas. Based upon this discovery, Luca founders recognized that integrating the disciplines of oil and gas with biotechnology could produce a solution to the global demand for clean, affordable energy.

Here’s a list of nutrients Luca uses in its natural gas farming process in the Powder River Basin to replenish underground habitats depleted by previous drilling operators: Minerals of calcium added as calcium chloride, magnesium added as magnesium chloride, phosphate added from magnesium phosphate, phosphoric acid, calcium phosphate, sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, or sodium tripolyphosphate, potassium added as potassium chloride.  Vitamin B-12, Niacin, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Biotin, Pantothenic Acid, Folate are added.  Proteins and perhaps activators, casein hydrolyzates, yeast extract, brewer’s yeast, soy protein, and peptones.

Looks like a nutritionist’s prescription, but Luca isn’t done yet.  Add in some vitality things like glycerol, weak organic acids, formic acid, acetic acid, propionic acid, butyric acid, lactic acid and decanoic acid.  A smorgasbord of supplements!

One has to wonder, just what does a concoction cost to treat a well, how often does a well need to be fed again, does the feeding peak with production running along on its own, and do any of the feedstocks get back to the surface for recycling?

There is an enormous amount of natural gas formation types, from landfills to deep hot rocks.  Somewhere between the extremes is an opportunity that Luca has figured out how to make pay.
If Pfeiffer is right about the potential recovery, and at least in some small part they’re correct now, the reserves in place could multiply dramatically.

Since it’s mostly all proprietary and intellectual property the hard details are out of reach.  But many a gas producer has to be looking over at Luca wondering . . . just how do I make use of that technology?  Many a consumer must be relieved as well . . . natural gas is by no means a short term fuel supply, its here to stay.

By Brian Westenhaus of NewEnergyandFuel.com

Source: Farming Natural Gas




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