Back in Black

Here's how microorganisms may be the power plants of the future.

By | February 1, 2009

The life sciences are ubiquitous. Their application in medicine (known in some quarters as red biotechnology), agriculture (green biotech) and industrial processes (white biotech) is indispensible and lauded. In this issue we look at a no less important but a much less celebrated assignment for life scientists, namely the challenge of meeting our energy needs. Perhaps it should be called black biotechnology. Black because our energy use is dominated by oil.

Oil will continue to be the world's major source of energy for years, in fact for decades, to come, despite the best efforts of biofuel technologists, and of solar, wind, wave and nuclear scientists. Global dependence on oil has never been greater: The incredible living standards in the West are built on its use, as is the dramatic economic growth in developing countries. Even in the midst of this severe and lengthy global economic slowdown, demand for oil will likely decrease only marginally this year, from 85 to 84 million barrels per day, according to the US Department of Energy. When economies pick up, usage will skyrocket, and so will the price. The downside of this dependence is that oil is the number one cause of global tensions and conflict, and of damage to the sustainability of the planet.

One of the features in this issue ("Can Bacteria Rescue the Oil Industry?") looks at the positive - and at first consideration, unlikely - impact that life science is having on the oil business. It is written by an industry insider, Hans Kristian Kotlar, who heads the biotechnology program at Norwegian petroleum corporation StatoilHydro.

Precious little is known about the community of bacteria and archea that subsist in and around oil deposits. Kotlar, among others, is taking the first tentative steps towards culturing isolates. As with other extremophile-philes, Kotlar anticipates a rich harvest of enzymes that can be used in industrial and medical applications. But his team has already found one use for oil microorganisms: as a genetic signature for rich oil deposits, a rapid and environmentally-sensitive way of prospecting the sea bed.

Another, still more valuable, application, is in increasing the percentage of oil recovered from deposits. This is especially true for deposits of heavy oil, the acidic and viscous crud which make up two-thirds of all the remaining reserves. Currently, recovery from such deposits, such as the tar sands of Alberta where StatoilHydro has a major interest, is an arduous, wasteful and fabulously expensive process that yields only six times as much energy as it consumes. An efficiency improvement of just a few percent would have a massive impact.

Kotlar's team is sifting through a library of products from oil-derived organisms for the ability to convert heavy oil into more manageable light oil. And, at least in bench-top experiments, they have succeeded. Research from other groups, notably Steve Larter's in Canada,1 has provided the scientific underpinnings: They have demonstrated that heavy oil is the result of eons of microbial degradation of light oil, and that one byproduct is methane. If this process can be sped up several thousand-fold, it may be possible to recover some of the deposits not as oil but as natural gas, a process that Larter describes as an in situ refinery.

That's some way off, but with extremophiles front and center in oil recovery, it's not hard to imagine other microorganisms as the power plants of the future. In a companion feature, Associate Editor Bob Grant looks at the claims on behalf of algae and yeast ("Future Oil"), while Correspondent Brendan Borrell visits the lab of Jay Keasling, who is trying to coax energy from E. coli ("Energy from E. coli"). Numerous small companies are at the beakers-to-liters stage, having achieved an advanced understanding of how to produce fuel hydrocarbons in their pet organisms.

Let's hope that the current dip in oil prices doesn't dampen enthusiasm for this research. We need to invest in the replacements for oil that will provide cheap, clean energy without the political, historical and economic baggage of oil. With energy prices low, now would be a good time to introduce an energy tax, with the proceeds being invested in research into alternative energy sources.


1. D.M. Jones et al., "Crude-oil biodegradation via methanogenesis in subsurface petroleum reservoir," Nature, 451:176-80, 2008.

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