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Coal-bed methane being created by microbes, researchers say

CHEYENNE -- Microbes are continually converting hydrocarbon deposits in the Powder River Basin to natural gas, and if managed properly, can help turn coal-bed methane into a renewable energy source, researchers said Tuesday.

Luca Technologies Inc., based in Denver, Colo., said laboratory evidence indicates that anaerobic microbes, or bacteria that live in the absence of oxygen, are turning the coals of northeast Wyoming into methane.

The company has termed sites of the microbial conversion of coals, organic shales, or oil "geobioreactors," and believes careful management may offer a long-term solution to U.S. energy needs.

"Our research on native coal, water and microbial samples from the (Powder River Basin) has determined that PRB coals can produce natural gas in real time," said Robert Pfeiffer, Luca's president and chief executive officer.

"This finding suggests that the gas in the PRB need not be an ancient remnant of microbial activity, as generally believed, but instead is being actively created today."

Luca scientists say that methane production can be increased or decreased by altering the microbes' access to water or nutrients, or that production can be halted entirely by exposing the organisms to oxygen or heat sterilization.

"This finding holds the potential of turning what is today thought to be a finite energy resource into a renewable source of natural gas that could potentially go on for hundreds of years," Pfeiffer said.

Maximizing recovery of methane from microbial conversion will require amending current operating practices as well as reviewing the legal and regulatory framework of energy development, he said.

The company is discussing its findings with Wyoming and federal agencies, as well as with major energy companies working in the Powder River Basin.

Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Editorial Notes: Using microbes to turn coal into gas certainly seems like a better option than the current method of coal gasification which involves setting fire to coal underground. However it's an incredible stretch of the imagination to believe that the natural gasification processes represent a 'renewable' energy source, since for one they are using coal, obviously a non-renewable energy source as the feedstock, and secondly that the process is naturally obviously a very slow one, otherwise the coal would have evaporated over the millions of years since its formation. Perhaps, releasing pressure from the coal bed could stimulate extra microbial activity, but this would be happening already in other coal bed methane fields and as yet no inexhaustible fields have been reported, so the rate of gasification is probably below levels considered commercially relevant. -AF

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