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From permafrost to self-sustainable oil and gas

We live on the cusp of new scientific discoveries. Almost daily, a new technology, new procedures or sometimes new organisms are revealed. The recent discovery of new organisms in the Arctic present a real and present danger to the climate as we know it, while a team working on algae in Japan sees the possibility of making oil.

Climate change, for whatever reason, is occurring. Some of it is, almost certainly, down to mankind’s activities, while some of it could be down to natural cycles of our planet and the universe beyond that we haven’t understood yet. Nevertheless, something is happening and it is extremely unlikely that governments will ever agree and stick to a strategy that will make any significant difference. Ironically, a worldwide recession just might.

The US Department of Commerce National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research in its annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI) for 2010 says that carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), out of five long-lived greenhouse gases, are the only ones that are continuing to increase at a regular rate. There is another however, methane (CH4), that has shown a marked increase in its radiative forcing for the years 2007 to 2010 after being almost constant from 1999 to 2006. Much of our climate change efforts have been directed at lessening the amount of CO2 that gets discharged into the atmosphere and is around 80% of our current problem. However, methane is around 25 times more effective than CO2 at warming our planet and if methane that has been locked away for years in permafrost and the oceans escapes then as far as us being able to stop or slow climate change, it is likely to be “game over.” The Arctic’s frozen land masses and oceans are thought to keep over 1.6bnt of carbon out of our planet’s atmosphere.

The role of microbes
Recently, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, Earth Science Division (ESD), the US Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the US Geological Survey have published in the scientific journal Nature, how Arctic microbes respond in a thaw. The aim was to discover what influence microbes may have as the permafrost thaws and, in the process of their work, the team made a discovery of a draft genome of what seems to be a microbe, yet to be named, that produces methane. “The permafrost is poised to become a major source of greenhouse gases as the temperature in the Arctic is expected to increase dramatically compared to the expected temperature increase in many other regions of the world,” said ESD’s Janet Jansson, corresponding author and initiator of the study in a statement. “By applying metagenomics to study microbial community composition and function, we can help to answer questions about how the currently uncultivated and unstudied microbial species residing in permafrost cycle organic carbon and release greenhouse gases during thaw,” said Jansson. “This will provide valuable information that could lead to improved carbon cycle models and eventual mitigation strategies.”

The consequences of mass emissions of methane into the atmosphere could reduce mankind’s efforts to reduce climate change to second rate. These are early days though and there are research challenges. At DOE JGI, the team, led by director Eddy Rubin and his postdoctoral fellow Rachel Mackelprang, (now at California State University-Northridge) generated 40bn bases of raw DNA sequence and identified several microbes that produced methane as a by-product. The team said that they were able to assemble a draft genome of a novel methanogen. “These microbial communities are extremely diverse,” said Mackelprang in a statement. “A single gram of soil may contain thousands of different bacterial species and billions of cells. Additionally, most of these microbes cannot be grown in the laboratory, making this an extremely difficult area to study.”

The joint authors of the study said in a statement that, “This is the first example of a successful assembly of a draft genome from a highly-complex soil metagenome. The abundance of this novel methanogen suggests that it may be an important player in methane production under frozen conditions.” It is possible that further research into this area, which is already ongoing in coal beds and in heavy oil recovery, may be enhanced by the discovery of the new microbes and maybe spawn another game changer.

Extracting oil from algae

Botryococcus brauni may hold the key to sustainable oil production.

Emanating from research underway by IHI NeoG Algae LLC, media reports have said that the company is working on extracting oil from algae. This seems to be a heavyweight, serious venture with the involvement of the major shipbuilding and heavy machinery company IHI Corp, which announced a joint venture with two biotech companies, Gene and Gene Technology Y.K. and Neo-Morgan Laboratory in August 2011. “Expectation and the investment to the algae industry have increased worldwide,” said Tomohiro Fujita, IHI’s CEO in a statement in August. “Enomoto Algae will have the ability to change the power of sunshine and carbon dioxide to develop the fuel (oil),” Now, already the joint venture has told reporters that it has successfully made an oil equivalent to A-grade heavy oil used in fishing boats from the algae, botryococcus braunii, an inhabitant of estuaries and lakes. The amount of oil made from 1.5l of liquid algae is small, just two to three millilitres of oil but it is a start. The reported leader in the algae-to-oil field is ExxonMobil, which set up a joint venture with Synthetic Genomics in 2009 and a US$600m investment but it would not be a surprise to see other majors enter the sector too as results become more promising.

Growing oil from vast algae cultivations may yet be an option.

Algae are a more attractive option over fuel from vegetations because of the ability to achieve higher yields from a smaller surface area. With IHI NeoG telling reporters that a litre of oil from algae will cost around JPY1000 yen (US$12.98) there is more work to do to reduce that cost 90% or so to make production viable. Nevertheless, the technology is under research and by major companies. We may yet be, figuratively-speaking, growing a proportion of our own oil.

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