Could this be the next big thing?
Current methods to extract oil from the ground include three phases of recovery. In primary recovery, when a well is first drilled into the ground, the natural pressure difference between the subsurface and the surface drives the oil out of the well to the surface. You may have seen video of black oil gushing out of the ground; this is primary recovery. However, once the pressure difference evens out, the oil will not gush out any more. At this point, extraction enters the secondary phase. In secondary recovery, water is injected into the ground from an adjacent well to push the oil out to the surface at the production well. The process is not efficient, though; the water may travel through holes in the rocks where there is no oil, resulting in low amounts of oil driven out. At the end of these two methods, approximately one-third of the oil in the reservoir has been extracted.
At this point, engineers inject chemicals and surfactants into the ground to try to wash out the oil in the tertiary recovery phase. A surfactant is a compound that binds with both oil and water – an example is detergent. But the chemicals that are used pose environmental and cost issues.
Scientists at the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley explore the use of microbes to extract oil in environmentally friendly and efficient ways. Microbes – tiny organisms that include bacteria – exist in abundance everywhere on Earth, including below ground. There is a vast variety of microbial species, and each species has unique abilities to produce useful compounds or carry out key tasks. The scientists at Energy Biosciences Institute are working to channel the special abilities of microbes to enhance oil recovery.
John D. Coates is a renowned scientist in this field. He is a Professor of Microbiology at UC Berkeley in the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology. Dr.Coates also holds a joint appointment as a Geological Scientist Faculty in the Earth Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and is co-director of the EBI's Microbially Enhanced Hydrocarbon Recovery (MEHR) program. His research is focused on environmental microbiology encompassing the fields of bioremediation, alternative energy production, and biogeochemistry. Please visit his webpages to find out more about what he's doing on fossil fuel bioprocessing.