In the quest for renewable energy, scientists have found an odd but promising lead: “rod shaped critters, some with tails, [which] have similarities to what is found in the deep ocean,” as one McClatchy reporter phrased it.
These grubby little guys live in shale formations thousands of feet below ground, surviving despite extreme pressure and high heat. They produce methane gas that can be used for fuel.
And perhaps as a direct result of energy extraction, this weird ecosystem is thriving.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers explains:
The collaborative university-industry study, led by engineers at The Ohio State University, found evidence that some of the natural gas extracted from fracked wells is an indirect byproduct of the drilling process itself. They believe the fracturing fluids injected down the well to break up underground shale formations can foster communities of bacteria and other micro-organisms that interact with fracturing chemicals to produce methane.
Although it would probably take more research to prove that this new biological source of natural gas is truly a sustainable technology, it could give energy producers new ways to prolong the economic viability of existing wells in an economic climate that discourages new drilling.
"The interactions of microorganisms and chemicals introduced into the wells create a fascinating new ecosystem,” said principal investigator Paula Mouser, assistant professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering at Ohio State. “Some of what we learn could make the wells more productive."
It is still very early in the research process, but the potential implications are intriguing.
The study raises the question of whether fracked wells can continue generating bio-assisted energy even after energy producers harvest all of the naturally existing reserves that were originally at a site.
Mouser, the Ohio State scientist, sums up the possibility nicely: “Imagine a situation where you could actually enhance methane recovery or methane production by providing organisms at these depths what they need to live.”