Skip to Main Content

Cover Story

November 20, 2006
Volume 84, Number 47
Web Exclusive

ENERGY

Microbial Methane Farming

With a boost from BASF, Luca is testing production of 'real-time' gas in mature wells

Rick Mullin

Science has only recently shown that not all natural gas deposits are entirely the product of geothermal activity. A significant portion of known reserves were produced by microorganisms that metabolize oil, shale, and coal into methane.

LUCA TECHNOLOGIES
View Enlarged Image
CLOSE-UP Shown are scanning electron micrographs of microbial consortia isolated from the Carney coal seam in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana at 4,000X (top) and 8,000X magnification (bottom).
View Enlarged Image

Luca Technologies, a five-year-old company based in Golden, Colo., is working to prove that this biological process can yield gas in "real time," that bacteria can be propagated to accelerate gas production in mature gas and oil fields, and that the gas can be extracted economically.

Until recently, Luca had been funded entirely by its founding partners, including the former owners of Preston Reynolds, a natural gas exploration company. The firm recently received a $3 million investment—and a major vote of confidence in its concept of biological gas farming—from chemical giant BASF.

"We focus on stimulating the growth of indigenous anaerobic microbes and the production of methane by these microbes," says Mark Finkelstein, vice president for biosciences at Luca. He says the work involves close study of complex conditions at specific sites.

"It's not a matter of a single microbe," he says of the bugs his firm is probing. "It's a consortium that really runs the gamut of microbes that are down there." Luca is interested in identifying and bolstering those microbes that degrade hydrocarbons, converting them to methane in the presence of alcohols and organic acids.

The production of methane and surfactant materials by microorganisms could also have the effect of stimulating oil production, according to Finkelstein.

Most of the work is taking place in the laboratory, where Luca feeds bacteria in bioreactors, "adding the right nutrients to samples we have drawn from the field," Finkelstein says. "In the case of an oil field, we take oil coming out of the well-head as well as the formation water that is associated with it."

Luca incubates the oil-and-water mixture to temperatures found deep in the wells from which it was extracted. "That in and of itself is enough in some instances to allow us to find the microbes that make methane," Finkelstein says.

Luca is currently working with a client in the oil and gas industry on producing methane through microbial stimulation in 100 coal-bed methane wells in Powder River, Wyo. "It's a pilot test, but 100 wells is not a trivial number to be working with over several thousand acres," Finkelstein says. "The data are just starting to come out, and it's very encouraging."

Luca President Robert Pfeiffer characterizes the pilot as "the first phase of a definitive field-test. It may take a couple of years to get there." Pfeiffer says the company faces an uphill struggle because of the novelty of its technology. In particular, it has been discouraged in efforts to obtain government grants.

While it is difficult to generalize about the oil and gas industry, Pfeiffer says it is, for the most part, "inquisitive but guarded" regarding the work Luca is doing. "The industry is not made up at all of biologists, so what we do is off the charts for them to even be able to evaluate," he says. "Most companies would love to be able to work with brownfields"—mature or spent oil fields—"and find wholly new ways to explore, but biology has never been one of the things that have led them to that place, and it still isn't today."

Not so BASF, which has been expanding its biotechnology holdings in recent years. The firms expressed a mutual interest from the start. "They were interested in our work in microbe chemistry," says Keith Gillard, a principal at BASF Venture Capital. "They were interested in our intellectual property in this area, and they were interested in working with our scientists." The fact that BASF owns Wintershall, an oil and gas business, added to its appeal for Luca, Gillard says.

For its part, Gillard says, BASF saw a compelling reason to invest in Luca: "The opportunity to turn unrecoverable assets into easily monetized, nice, clean methane." BASF uses methane both as feedstock and as a source of energy.

"Thousands of coal-bed methane mines have gone dead," Gillard says. "If you have a chance to go in and rebalance the microbial population, to make money from assets long written off with infrastructure still in place, that's pretty compelling."

Pfeiffer says the BASF investment is a serious milestone that may lead to a research collaboration. "It is a lot of horsepower joining our team and a great validation of our science, methods, and thought process."

He says Luca's next step is to commercialize the process. "This sounds so simple, but it's a multiyear step of taking what we've learned in the lab to very specific well bores and understanding what will work down the hole," he says. "The idea that there are enormous amounts of hydrocarbons buried under the earth is not new to the energy companies. They struggle with that every day. The question is whether you can find a biological way to turn it into methane and capture that methane."

Cover Story

  • Better Energy Through Chemistry
  • By supporting new energy creation techniques, specialty chemical companies are turning the oil and gas price run-up into a business opportunity.
  • Solar Revolution
  • The market for photovoltaics is expanding rapidly, and chemical companies are taking notice.
  • Fuels Of The Future
  • Chemistry and agriculture join to make a new generation of renewable fuels.
  • Start-up Firms Pursue Biofuels
  • Entrepreneurs invigorate search for economical biomass-based fuels.
  • Back To The Well
  • Chemistry targets cost-efficient extraction of oil and gas from mature reserves.
  • Microbial Methane Farming
  • With a boost from BASF, Luca is testing production of 'real-time' gas in mature wells.
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Cover Story

  • Better Energy Through Chemistry
  • By supporting new energy creation techniques, specialty chemical companies are turning the oil and gas price run-up into a business opportunity.
  • Solar Revolution
  • The market for photovoltaics is expanding rapidly, and chemical companies are taking notice.
  • Fuels Of The Future
  • Chemistry and agriculture join to make a new generation of renewable fuels.
  • Start-up Firms Pursue Biofuels
  • Entrepreneurs invigorate search for economical biomass-based fuels.
  • Back To The Well
  • Chemistry targets cost-efficient extraction of oil and gas from mature reserves.
  • Microbial Methane Farming
  • With a boost from BASF, Luca is testing production of 'real-time' gas in mature wells.

Related Stories

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic