Fracking with Bacteria

Fracking with Bacteria

5:00pm Sep 05, 2014
Colonies of B. subtilis grown on a culture dish in a molecular biology laboratory
From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.

Fracking is the process of removing oil and natural gas that is trapped inside rock formations. Basically, it involves drilling horizontally into the rock and fracturing it by pumping in water at high pressure. Additionally, chemicals are added to the water, some of which separate the oil and gas from the rock and assist in moving it through the well. These chemicals are called surfactants. Fracking is being done on a large scale in the United States, and is likely to happen here in North Carolina. Like in any industry there are innovations that can improve the process, while helping to minimize any environmental hazards. To learn about one such innovation, we spoke with Michael Bralkowski, the US Operations Director for Global Future Solutions, which has its US offices and a plant right here in the Triad.

We grow a bacteria, and the bacteria is called Bacillus subtilis. It is made by adding a bacteria to sugar water and allowing it to grow into trillions of bacteria per cubic centimeter. So we make quadrillions of bacteria. 

Bacillus subtilis is called the hay bacteria, or the grass bacteria. It protects the grass roots from other bacteria and funguses and it helps plant roots break down bionutrients in the soil and pull them into the plant. So as the animals eat the plant the bacteria goes with the plant and also inhabits the cow’s stomach or the horse’s stomach. It's in our stomachs, it's in our kitchens, it's in the soil that we walk on. The EPA says it's ubiquitous.

So, how can this bacteria, that is found pretty much everywhere, improve the fracking process?

This bacteria has some special properties. One thing a bacteria can be used for is a biosurfactant. And this biosurfactant is used by other companies, purified as a drug for premature babies lungs to allow them to breathe better. In our case it lowers the friction in the frack well. As they pump the millions of gallons of water in the sand, it allows this to be pumped easier down the well, as it has very, very low surface tension which makes things flow quickly. It reduces the energy needed to push all the water and sand into the ground. The biosurfactant that it makes is one of the most powerful surfactants in the world. It’s one thousand times better than any man-made chemical out of oil that's a surfactant, and it's all-natural so it breaks apart itself. And a large part of the chemicals that are put down are surfactants and aids to lubricate the material going down the well.

According to Bralkowski, growing the bacteria is a natural process which overall uses less energy and the high quality of the biosurfactant means less energy goes into the extraction of Oil and Gas. And as we know, less energy means a lower carbon emission. But fracking is not the only potential use for Bacillus Subtilis in oil production.

Right now we’re using it in Canada. Canada is a major producer of oil. We also see that it solubilizes oilsands. These are the big areas where oil and tar and sand are mixed together and they scoop it out of the ground.

We've been pilot testing it in our laboratories to just put that material in this water and shake it around and the crude oil comes off in a foam and the sand and soil are free of any chemistries. And we could grow grass right on those, and it's treated with Bacillus.

The Bacillus subtilis biosurfactant has some additional effects which may prove beneficial from an environmental point of view.

The Bacillus subtilis is one of the bacteria that biodegrades things. So, it takes a more complex material and breaks it down into smaller chemistries, so like carbon and carbon dioxide and water. 

We hope that it'll eventually be a replacement for some of the other chemistries.


This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of 

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