SETI bioastro: Researchers Find Key to Spurring Methane Conversion

From: Larry Klaes (
Date: Mon Apr 17 2000 - 08:20:06 PDT

Date: Fri, 14 Apr 2000 22:26:40 -0400 (EDT)
From: NSF Custom News Service <>
To: CNS Subscribers <>
Subject: [pr0023] - News Releases

The following document (pr0023) is now available from
the NSF Online Document System

   Title: Researchers Find Key to Spurring Methane Conversion
    Type: News Releases
 Subtype: Biology

It may be found at:

Full text follows.

 ---------------------------- CUT HERE ----------------------------
Title: Researchers Find Key to Spurring Methane Conversion
Date: April 13, 2000

Media contact:
April 13, 2000
Cheryl Dybas
NSF PR 00-23

Program contact:
Penny Firth

                                      RESEARCHERS FIND KEY TO
                                 SPURRING METHANE CONVERSION

      Microbiologists Derek Lovley and Robert Anderson of the
University of Massachusetts at Amherst have found that bacteria living
just below the earth's surface can be coaxed to rapidly convert oil to
methane gas in oil-rich soil. Their findings, which are spelled out in a
paper in the April 13 issue of the journal Nature, could change the way
the oil exploration industry operates. The research is funded by the
National Science Foundation (NSF).

     Petroleum engineers often hit pockets of methane when exploring for
oil. According to Lovley, specialized microorganisms that live deep in
the earth break down oil to its simplest form, and the result of that
process is what we call "natural gas," or methane. Underground pockets
of explosive gas are oil-exploration hazards because they generally are
contiguous to valuable oil reserves.

     In the summer of 1999, Lovley and Anderson examined the site of a
contaminated aquifer where crude oil had spilled, 30 feet below the
surface of the earth near Bemidji, Minnesota. With the help of a grant
from NSF's Life in Extreme Environments Program, they studied anaerobic
metabolic processes of microbes living in and around the oil spill. The
contamination had changed the composition of the microbial community
from what was normally found in the Minnesota soil to something similar
to what would be found near oil reservoirs. Unlike soil found much
deeper in the earth, however, there was no sulfate in this soil. Until
Lovley and Anderson's study, sulfate was thought to be a necessary
ingredient in the process microbes use to break down oil.

     "We know that microbial processes found in shallow environments are
also common to deeper environments," explains Lovley, "We study microbes
at shallow levels because it's hard to sample them down as deep as the
oil reserves."

     The researchers incubated the sediments in the laboratory under
conditions that mimicked those found in the subsurface of the earth.
Surprisingly, as soon as Lovley and Anderson added the oil component
hexadecane with a carbon-14 tracer to the sediment, methane gas carrying
the tracer was produced "without a lag." The two concluded that the
microbes in the soil were converting the hexadecane and other oil
components in the soil to methane gas, in the same way deep-dwelling
microbes might complete the methane process in a natural environment.

     "We found that, contrary to what was previously believed, it's not
necessary to have sulfate present in order for microbes to produce
methane from oil," says Lovley. "This is important because significant
amounts of sulfate are not usually found in oil reservoirs. This finding
is very useful, with a potential for widespread application to the
petroleum industry." In some cases, he said, it might be beneficial to
use microorganisms to convert the oil in reservoirs to methane because
methane is easier to extract than oil.

     Adds Lovley, "When we better understand the conditions under which
microorganisms convert oil to methane, we should be able to better
predict where explosive deposits of methane will be located. This should
make oil exploration a bit safer."


NSF is an independent federal agency which supports fundamental research
and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an
annual budget of about $4 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states,
through grants to about 1,600 universities and institutions nationwide.
Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding,
and makes about 10,000 new funding awards.

 ---------------------------- CUT HERE ----------------------------

NSF Custom News Service
Please send questions and comments to     

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Wed Mar 28 2001 - 16:07:53 PST