Microbes in Oil Industry


Recently I am on a family reunion in China. I only have limited access to Internet here. Sometimes, I can receive news about oil spill in Gulf of Mexico through newspaper, radio or television. This morning, when I was listening to CCTV news channel, a piece of news about a new strain of bacteria developed by Sino-US researchers could help the oil spill. From the website of Oregon State University, you can find the details about the news: Strain of Bacteria Discovered; Could Aid in Oil Spill, Other Environmental Cleanup. This technology is not brand new. I have been working in the related area for years. The main target of my work from the year of 2001 to 2004 is improving the production of the oil from the underground by using microbes, which is called Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery (MEOR). The idea of MEOR came from the degradation of hydrocarbon by microbes, especially for long-chain hydrocarbons. It was in 1905 that a Japanese scientist found this kind of phenomena. From the year of 1926, Zobell initiated the research of  MEOR technology. From 1970s to 1980s, MEOR technology developed further due to the oil crisis. At the low price oil age, the EOR technologies, including MEOR has little advantages over water flooding, especially the additional cost. In China, MEOR could trace back to 1950s. A microbiologist from Chinese Academy of Sciences named Xiuyuan Wang founded MEOR research work in Yumen Oilfield at that time. Fortunately, I worked with him for 3 years. During that period, he offered me a lot of help in my master thesis work. To my surprise, he passed away in Beijing on Nov. 15th, 2008. Let us switch back to the microbes related to the oil spill. It is very common to use microbes to remove the organisms in the waste water in environmental area. The oil or the oil-water emulsion is very difficult to handle with. Naturally it will cost a very long time to degrade the oil or oil-water emulsion (oil in water or water in oil). The bioengineering technology could accelerate the process. The idea is not brand new, but the strain is very critical. As I know, there are lots of strains that could degrade the hydrocarbon and produce rhamnolipids. There is no more detail about the strain of NY3 according to the news. I cannot provide more comments on this one. Before closing this post, I want to point out the possibility that microbial treatment of oil spill may cause secondary ecological disaster in Gulf of Mexico. The risk management must have been done prior to any treatments.

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