Magazine article Science News

Big Oil, Tiny Barons: Microbes Can Unleash Trapped Petroleum

Magazine article Science News

Big Oil, Tiny Barons: Microbes Can Unleash Trapped Petroleum

Article excerpt

Supply shortages have pushed oil prices above $70 per barrel, but nearly 380 billion barrels of crude oil--in the United States alone--are stuck in the pores of rocks or on the surfaces of sand grains. A new study proves the feasibility of using specialized microbes to lift trapped oil that's inaccessible to current pumping technologies.

Several decades ago, researchers found that bacteria in the genus Bacillus produce detergent molecules as waste. Some preliminary lab and field studies suggested as adding these microbes to oil wells could release significant amounts of trapped oil in the same way as detergent lifts stains out of clothing. However, other work showed that the microbes had no effect, says microbiologist Michael McInerney of the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

McInerney and his team have now conducted a rigorous test of microbial activity both in the lab and in some small oil wells.

The researchers first injected mixtures of cultured Bacillus bacteria and nutrients into sandstone or sand-packed columns containing entrapped oil. They found that when the organisms produced a detergent concentration of at least 60 milligrams per liter (mg/1) of culture, the microbes unleash up to 40 percent of the trapped oil.

Last summer, the scientists moved their experiments into five small, nearly spent oil wells located near the town of Oil Center, Okla. The researchers shut off the oil pumps and injected test solutions into the wells. …

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