Preserving the Environment

This Bizarre Bacteria Could Clean Up the Oil Business

January 14, 2014
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This Bizarre Bacteria Could Clean Up the Oil Business
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An unusual, oil-eating microbe has the potential to make oil extraction a lot less invasive to the environment.

What if some of the biggest problems in the oil industry could be solved by a tiny, nearly undetectable bacteria? That’s what University of Illinois scientists have suggested after discovering microbes called Halomonas that have been chowing down on their fuel-rich surroundings a mile underneath Illinois. The big issue with oil extraction is its major disturbance to the environment. Crude oil from the Illinois Basin’s porous sandstone is currently siphoned with steam or chemicals, a process that’s been harsh to the surroundings, UI researchers said.

But as the News-Gazette reports, this microbe can naturally break down oil without leaving any chemical byproducts, which would allow oil companies to easily scoop up sludge that’s normally too heavy to extract. “There’s great interest now in being able to harness the power of microbes to find oil and gas, to break down oil and gas in the subsurface and actually being able to refine it, and to be able to use the microbes that live down there to help us extract it,” said Bruce Fouke, UI professor of geology and microbiology and principal investigator on the study.

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The researchers have also found that this amazing bacteria — which thrives in complete darkness, extreme pressures and temperatures up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit — can turn toxic oil byproducts into less harmful substances. Varieties of Halomonas have even helped eat up the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and possibly the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Fun fact: its fittingly named cousin, Halomonas titanicae, is currently gobbling up the Titanic.) Now that’s a bacteria we — and the oil industry — can get behind.

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