Oil-Eating Bacteria May Prove to be a Solution to U.S. Energy Needs

Hungry bacteria soon could breathe new life into some of Oklahoma's oldest oil fields if University of Oklahoma researcher Joseph Suflita's work proves successful.

Nov. 30—Hungry bacteria soon could breathe new life into some of Oklahoma's oldest oil fields if University of Oklahoma researcher Joseph Suflita's work proves successful.

The OU microbiology professor and director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment and his team are working with a kind of microscopic organism that can convert crude oil into natural gas just by eating and breathing.

The team successfully has used the creatures — known as methanogens — to clean up oil spills and other oil field-related problems, but the group is hoping the same organisms will help energy producers suck more oil and natural gas from existing wells.

"I think this could turn out to be important for the United States economy and its national security," Suflita said. "I think it's very important to take greater control of our fate when it comes to energy."

Energy industry leaders hope the methanogens can transform the country's oil and gas industry by providing companies with access to possibly billions of barrels of previously untapped reserves, which in turn could lead to higher royalty payments to Oklahoma landowners and increased tax revenue to state coffers.

"This is a fantastic technology that if we can make work on a large-scale project, will certainly enhance our ability to recover oils," said Bruce Bell, chairman of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma.

"This kind of research should be a significant part of our national energy policy because it is becoming clearer that we are moving toward a time in which we are not going to be able to keep supply at pace with demand."

The methanogens work in concert with another species of bacteria to convert crude oil into natural gas through a process of anaerobic respiration. In the absence of oxygen, methanogens inhale oil and exhale natural gas.

The best of modern oil-field techniques can pull only about 30 percent of the oil out of underground reserves, and technology used on the state's first-discovered oil fields could extract only about 10 percent to 15 percent.

If Suflita's work is successful, the methane-producing bacteria could give producers access to the vast oil deposits still hiding underground.

If methanogens are able to convert oil into natural gas, researchers hope, the bacteria may be able to allow the industry to extract much of the remaining reserves as natural gas, which is rapidly growing into one of the most used fuels in the country.

It is unknown exactly how much oil remains in the ground beneath Oklahoma and the rest of the United States, but even the most conservative estimates show the rocks still hold billions of barrels, taunting the oil industry and Americans who burn more than 80 million barrels a day.

"If you can exploit even a small percentage of the huge reservoirs, that could account for a rather substantial portion of the country's energy needs and, therefore, position the United States to take a greater role in supplying its own energy needs," Suflita said.

Suflita's team has successfully used the microbes in numerous oil spill cleanup projects, but several tests still are necessary before the group is ready to use the bacteria in a full-scale attempt to tap trapped reserves, the professor said.

While the research is continuing, Suflita said it is still unclear when full-scale tests will take place.

"The pace of our studies is governed by our funding," he said.

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© 2004, The Daily Oklahoman. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.