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Venter Discovers Ancient Bacteria That Can Turn Coal into Methane

Craig Venter, the controversial American scientist who helped decode the human genome, has announced the discovery of ancient bacteria that can turn coal into methane, suggesting they may help to solve the world’s energy crisis.

The bugs, discovered a mile underground by one of Venter’s microbial prospecting teams, are said to have unique enzymes that can break down coal. Venter said he was already working with BP on how to exploit the find.

Venter even suggested the discovery could open up the world’s coalfields to an entirely new form of mining, where coal is infected with the bacteria, allowing methane to be harvested “without even digging up the coal”.
 
 

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  1. The concept that microbial populations resident in coal beds and other hydrocarbon deposits might be harnessed to create a sustainable source of natural gas was discovered long before Dr. Venter proclaimed such. In fact, the company that pioneered this work - employing populations of naturally occurring organisms resident in the coal beds -- is already actively producing gas from its initial pilot wells in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and has generated and harvested to date approximately 1 billion cubic feet of "green" gas, enough to heat 16,000 homes for a year. This company -- Denver-based Luca Technologies was the first to prove the real time generation of coal bed methane, starting from their founder's initial field observations in the Powder River Basin gas fields in 2001 that natural gas was likely being formed in real-time within the coal beds, rather than being tapped from ancient gas deposits. He and the company's co-founders decided to test their thesis in the lab, and indeed proved not only that there was a live population of anaerobic microbes (those living in oxygen-free environments) in the coals that were actively producing methane, but that methane production could be altered by the addition of certain nutrients or stopped by adding oxygen or other things that would kill the microorganisms. Luca Technologies was formed to further develop their ideas and apply them in the field, with the idea this could be the beginning of a whole new industry of natural gas farming. Rather than trying to create the right population of microbes from scratch, as reports suggest Dr. Venter's group is doing, Luca is working with the bacterial populations that are resident naturally in the coals (which the company has isolated from a variety of locations and continues to study). These are complex populations of microbes, some of which directly digest the hydrocarbons while others digest their metabolic by products, but the end product by a group of microbes known as methanogens is natural gas. Today Luca has proven its concept in the field and is actively cultivating its "Geobioreactors," while continuing to develop its technology. While the company's first focus has been coal bed methane, they are also studying the model of using microbial consortia from active "Geobioreactors" to cross inoculate currently inactive hydrocarbon deposits or even spent oil wells, where there is actually plenty of oil but it's no longer economically recoverable in that form using conventional technology.

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