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Appl Environ Microbiol. 2008 May;74(10):3022-9. doi: 10.1128/AEM.00119-08. Epub 2008 Mar 31.

Bioenergy production via microbial conversion of residual oil to natural gas.

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Department of Botany and Microbiology, Institute for Energy and the Environment, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73019, USA.


World requirements for fossil energy are expected to grow by more than 50% within the next 25 years, despite advances in alternative technologies. Since conventional production methods retrieve only about one-third of the oil in place, either large new fields or innovative strategies for recovering energy resources from existing fields are needed to meet the burgeoning demand. The anaerobic biodegradation of n-alkanes to methane gas has now been documented in a few studies, and it was speculated that this process might be useful for recovering energy from existing petroleum reservoirs. We found that residual oil entrained in a marginal sandstone reservoir core could be converted to methane, a key component of natural gas, by an oil-degrading methanogenic consortium. Methane production required inoculation, and rates ranged from 0.15 to 0.40 micromol/day/g core (or 11 to 31 micromol/day/g oil), with yields of up to 3 mmol CH(4)/g residual oil. Concomitant alterations in the hydrocarbon profile of the oil-bearing core revealed that alkanes were preferentially metabolized. The consortium was found to produce comparable amounts of methane in the absence or presence of sulfate as an alternate electron acceptor. Cloning and sequencing exercises revealed that the inoculum comprised sulfate-reducing, syntrophic, and fermentative bacteria acting in concert with aceticlastic and hydrogenotrophic methanogens. Collectively, the cells generated methane from a variety of petroliferous rocks. Such microbe-based methane production holds promise for producing a clean-burning and efficient form of energy from underutilized hydrocarbon-bearing resources.

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