Microbes that eat Coal

Proteus mirabilis colony, in false color image, from Dr. James Shapiro’s lab, where they study bacterial genetics

Yesterday I wrote about Methane, and its mixed bag as a greenhouse gas that is also used to heat homes and make electricity. When methane is just emitted to the atmosphere it has 20x the global warming effect of CO2. But when we burn it, as Natural Gas, it is a much cleaner fuel than both coal and oil. There are vast reserves of methane trapped beneath the ice in both the arctic and the antarctic, but we don’t yet have a way to access them without releasing all that methane into the atmosphere. We do, however, have ways to access methane that would not only capture most of it, but would also utilize our substantial remaining coal reserves without either blasting mountains to dig it up or spewing masses of pollution into the atmosphere in order to turn it into heat or electricity.

Welcome our lowly, powerful friend – bacteria. In this case a few different strains of bacteria. Ever since people began to mine coal, they had to watch out for pockets of gas in the mines that would explode with a single spark if not properly vented. Miners thought that gas was just there, but in the last century someone figured out that the gas was also being created right then. Research led to the discovery of bacteria which were actually eating the coal, and turning it into methane.

I’m sure you’ve heard of fracking, and its associated economic benefits and ecological destruction. Part of what they are trying to recover is Natural Gas, which has been created by these little microbes. But you don’t need to drill and send millions of gallons of chemical laden water deep into the earth to get more Natural Gas. Several groups are researching ways to get these bacteria to do the work for them. One group, Luca Technologies, is already doing it. Their method is even cooler, because they don’t need to dig the coal up in order to extract the natural gas.

Imagine, all the countries in the world benefiting from their natural supplies of coal, heating houses, cooking food, running power plants, even sending rockets to the moon, without ever digging it out of the ground.

I love that as I was researching this I kept finding things written by people within the coal industry. West Virginia has relied on coal in its economy for over 200 years. They know we need to change how coal is used, and they are working to get those changes put in place.

The reason I was researching this is that there is a debate right now about sending millions of tons of coal through the ports in Washington State on their way to China. As I heard varioud stories about this I kept thinking about this budding technology to turn that coal into natural gas. I’m sure there are more things to be worked out, but does it really make sense to promote the dirty use of a fuel that within a few years could be used with such a more friendly environmental impact?

One key issue to overcome is the lack of coordination of governmental regulations. Yet, also, one of the ways these solutions are possible is through governmental policies.

Great Idea: find a way to turn a dirty fuel into a cleaner fuel
Practical Step: getting microbes to do the work (again!)

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