Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Deep-Earth Microbes Could Aid Fracking Efforts

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Deep-Earth Microbes Could Aid Fracking Efforts

Article excerpt

MORGANTOWN - On a muddy hill above a World War II ordnance plant that made material for atomic bombs, a fracking crew will drill thousands of feet underground in a search for life itself. The drilling is a hunt for microscopic organisms, first introduced hundreds of millions of years ago, which have evolved to live in the shale 7,000 feet below the ground, at pressures 600 times that of the surface, and temperatures around 160 degrees.

Little is known about what lives at those extreme depths and whether the microbes are even down there. But, if found and given a food source that allows them to thrive, they have properties that offer the potential to help drillers pump more natural gas and prolong the U.S. energy boom.

Paula Mouser, assistant professor of engineering at Ohio State University, calls it the "next frontier."

Among the life she expects to find in the shale rock more than a mile below the surface of the Earth are organisms that produce methane, the primary component of natural gas.

"Imagine a situation where you could actually enhance methane recovery or methane production by providing organisms at these depths what they need to live, said Mouser.

The researchers have obtained samples containing such bacteria bubbling up from other oil and gas drilling wells. The organisms are rod-shaped critters, some with tails, and have similarities to what is found in the deep ocean.

But those samples were collected after the fracking already happened. So it is not clear whether the microbes were really living far underground, or if they were introduced by outside sources like the water that drillers pump below to fracture the shale rocks and get the oil and gas.

This time will be different. The drillers in the coming months will haul up pristine core samples before the fracking starts. So researchers can see what lives in the shale rock far below.

While there's been study of ocean microbes (some of which eat hydrocarbons and help clean up oil spills), the deep shale rock was long elusive to scientists. There wasn't so much incentive for companies to spend millions on drilling a well before the fracking boom hit in 2009.

"Finding life at depths like that would be amazing, said Tim Carr, a professor of geology at West Virginia University. …

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