More exciting news on the energy front.
Fracking technology has already made it practical to exploit previously inaccessible natural gas and oil in the United States (see “Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map”). Now several companies are demonstrating a way to use microörganisms that eat coal and excrete methane—the main ingredient in natural gas—as a possible means of extracting fuel from coal resources that had been too expensive to mine.
Many coal beds contain large amounts of methane that can be harvested by drilling wells. In recent decades, researchers have demonstrated that a large fraction of the natural gas found in the coal beds is produced by naturally occurring microörganisms that feed on coal, and they have found ways to stimulate the microbes to produce more methane. Luca Technologies, based in Golden, Colorado, is using this approach to increase production from coal beds with existing methane wells. Another company, Next Fuel, based in Sheridan, Wyoming, recently showed that it could use similar technology to produce methane from coal beds that didn’t already have methane in them, raising the possibility that vast amounts of coal that’s currently too expensive to mine could be converted into natural gas.
Though the idea of microbial production is not new, says Julio Friedmann, chief energy technologist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the technology has taken great strides in recent years, in large part because researchers know more about the different microörganisms that work together to digest coal and produce methane. “I know a handful of companies working on those technologies that seem to have pretty good recovery of natural gas at pretty good cost,” he says. That, he adds, creates a potentially significant market opportunity, and “I wouldn’t have guessed that a couple of years ago.”
It’s incredible to think that we could turn America’s coal reserves into natural gas reserves. Between natural gas and oil, America could become a major exporter of energy. Given how clean natural gas is, especially compared to coal, we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without needing to reduce our energy consumption.