Microbes mine trapped energy

Research underway by British and Canadian scientists is aiming to prove whether microbes can be used to unlock the energy trapped in the world’s unrecoverable heavy oil deposits.

Scientists at Newcastle University and the Calgary University, Canada, have set up a company, Profero Energy, to build on their recent research, which demonstrated how naturally-occurring microbes convert oil to methane over tens of millions of years.

The research team discovered that the immense 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.

The company will now 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. If the scientists’ calculations are correct, natural gas should flow back out, as the microbes thrive on the nutrients, multiply, and digest the tar-like oil at a greatly increased rate.