Researchers at Denver, CO-based Luca Technologies Inc., in a scientific paper last Tuesday, debunked the general belief that natural gas is a finite source that has been around for hundreds of years. They concluded that a group of living microbes are generating natural gas in real-time fashion within coal found in the Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming.

The discovery “suggests that the gas in the [Powder River Basin] need not be an ancient remnant of microbial activity, as generally believed, but instead is being actively created today,” noted Luca Technologies President and CEO Robert Pfeiffer.

“The implications certainly could be very positive for U.S. energy demand. We could be providing natural gas for hundreds of years or generations to come,” rather than facing the prospect of it being depleted in 20 to 30 years, said Christie Haas, Luca’s director of administration.

The company presented evidence showing that Powder River Basin coals are producing natural gas in real-time fashion through the ongoing activity of anaerobic microbes (bacteria living in the absence of oxygen) that reside in the coal fields. Luca said it calls these sites where this microbial conversion of hydrocarbon deposits (coals, organic shales or oil) to methane occurs “Geobioreactors,” and it believes careful management of the sites may offer a long-term solution to domestic energy needs.

Asked how quickly gas was being produced by this process, Haas said it was “hard to say,” and added that researchers have observed varying rates of methanogenesis in the lab.

“We have taken cores [coal] from the ground and preserved them in an oxygen-free environment, and we have done the same thing with resident water samples. We have taken them back to the lab and under anaerobic conditions we have preserved them again in an oxygen-free environment, and combined in test tubes the coal and resident water. We have done nothing to treat it, and it is creating methane,” she said.

“We alerted everybody at the same time” about Luca’s findings, including notifications to states, the federal government and major energy companies, she said. Haas believes the discovery may require a readjustment of the operating practices, and legal and regulatory framework of the energy industry.

The company’s work is “just beginning,” she said. “The fact that we’ve identified that it’s living is the first step.” Luca researchers have done their “most intensive research” so far in the Powder River Basin, but they are looking at other areas — taking samples nationwide, Haas noted. But she declined to say which other areas were being sampled.

Substantial quantities of methane are believed to exist in the Powder River Basin coal seams (an estimated total resource of 37 Tcf), but this quantity of gas likely represents only a small fraction of the methane that could be created through biogenesis, Luca researchers wrote in their paper. They estimate that the conversion of only 1% of the known Powder River Basin coal resource would generate approximately 86 Tcf of gas.

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