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In situ biorefineries with sub-surface bacteria

Scientists have proven for the first time the existence of sub-surface anaerobic microbes in petroleum reserves. Further, they have shown that their degradative activity can facilitate crude oil exploitation.
In situ biorefineries with sub-surface bacteria
Global dependence on fossil fuels is at an all-time high, making preservation and efficient exploitation of heavy oil reserves particularly pressing. Geochemical evidence points to biodegradation of most of the world's oil reserves by anaerobic microbes present in the deep petroleum reservoirs. However, relatively little is known about this purported tremendous population, thought to be as large as the microbial biomass on the surface.

Scientists set out to investigate the vast sub-surface microbial community with EU funding of the project 'Microbiology of anaerobic hydrocarbon degradation in petroleum reservoirs' (MICROBEOIL). Tar sands in Canada, an unconventional heavy oil field with elevated sulphur concentration, provided samples that were subjected to comprehensive analyses.

Groundbreaking work led to the first-ever publication describing the anaerobic microbiology of such an oil field. Scientists found that epsilon-proteobacteria are abundant in crude oil present in low-temperature aquifers associated with the heavy oil reserves. Surprisingly, their biodegradation is actually beneficial. Desulfurisation of crude oil is an important biorefinery process and a much larger job in the case of tar sands. The bacteria discovered by project scientists catalyse this process, forming a sort of in situ biorefinery. This could prove useful in the exploitation of tar sands in the years ahead.

MICROBEOIL results are seminal in providing solid evidence that the dominance of epsilon-proteobacteria in low-temperature oil fields is not an artefact of experimental methods as previously reported. Scientists also showed that other sub-surface bacteria dominate high-temperature oil fields. These findings lay the foundation for new research that could aid in better understanding and exploitation of sub-surface petroleum reservoirs.

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