Meet Me at the World’s Flare; methane gas flaring, and the role of biobased tech

November 18, 2013 |

Bakken-playAs stranded natural gas is poured into the atmosphere by the millions of tons each year — biologists are coming to the rescue with a new class of technologies.

They’re designed to convert more “old methane” to higher value fuels and chemicals, and make more “new methane” via high-tech digesters that turn waste into liquid gold.

And there’s a role for microbes that make their own electric wires. 

In the hour before the dawn, there is only the glow and whup-whup of the gas flares, as they crackle and dance under the force of a light morning breeze. Around here, in the remote flats of the Bakken shale field, it’s can be the only sound to remind you that mankind had ever ventured more than two klicks north of WIlliston.

This is shale gas boom country, and ranching country. The sun-blasted flats, the courses of the irrigation ditch, the wind-driven water pumps and the teeter-tottering black iron that drives wealth out of the oil wells.

The flares — Dakota fireflies — dot the landscape like pin-lights. They burn natural gas escaping from the unconnected Bakken oil field wells, which are coaxing energy out of 9,000 working sites in the area. By 2030, there are expected to be 50,000.

You can see the flares from space. In fact, they form lights that are almost as bright as the cities of Chicago and Minnesota, and way brighter than anything in this neck of the woods. In all, the well owner are flaring more than a quarter-million cubic feet each day — more than a billion dollars in lost revenue each year. It’s not helping with pollution, either.

You might ask, why not simply build pipelines or truck and rail the gas to markets.

The Bakken play is oil, oil, oil

As Primus Green Energy VP Greg Boyajian explains, “The challenge, the Bakken play is 95-97 percent oil, and flaring costs you money, but it is 3 percent of the money. You can drill another hole and make money, or invest in gas that represents 3 percent of the revenue. Sure, North Dakota is trying to incentivize uses for flared gas through tax and incentives. But the Bakken is oil, oil, oil — and natural gas is a rounding error.”

The numbers bear out Boyajian’s perspective. Each month, the Bakken wells produce north of $2 billion in revenue for their owners, the flaring accounts for about 30 percent of all natural gas production in North Dakota. Gas pipelines are being built but take time and are expensive: costing nearly $2 million per mile for natural gas pipeline — with projects like Alliance Pipeline’s project to set up a 79-mile pipeline extension into the Bakken fields – that excluding the compression technology.

More than 2,000 miles of gas pipeline per year are being built in North Dakota, and there are more than 18,000 miles in the Bakken, $2 million per mile adds up quickly, and right now, rules permit operators to flare gas without paying taxes or royalties for the first year of production, and get an exemption thereafter if it is uneconomical to connect a well to a pipeline.

A role for green chemistry

Turns out, the biological systems that generally are associated with biofuels could play a role. One, bringing technologies that economically liquefy gas, making it easier and cheaper to transport. Perhaps most importantly, using the carbon and hydrogen as a base for the production of higher-value fuels and chemicals, through green chemistry.

After all, on a BTU basis alone, gas is trading at $4 per MMBTU and oil is trading at around three times that figure. And, that’s just burning the product. With green chemistry applied, the value of hydrocarbons can jump to $2000 per ton, or higher – that’s more than 12 times the value of natural gas in the power markets, used for burning. That’s not every hydrocarbon, and the costs of the proceses are not cheap. But you get the idea.

The kind of numbers that make natural gas too valuable to flare, instead of too cheap to save. And that’s where biology has a role to play — because the traditional chemistries can upgrade gas, but the costs are too high to make the process cost-effective for stranded gas, at the present time.

For that reason, ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) launched a $34 million effort in natural gas conversion earlier this year, called Project REMOTE. REMOTE stands for Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy, and it aims at developing advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation. We suspect that the technologies ultimately will be deployed for higher-value chemicals, as well.

The new Rock Star of microorganisms: the methanotroph

In all, there are 15 different projects. The starring organism is a methanotroph, a microbe that can metabolize methane. It is the Rock Star of Microorganisms in this decade, as low-cost natural gas flows out of the Bakken.

One such project? A two-year award led by MOgene Green Chemicals that is working towards sunlight-assisted conversion of methane to butanol. In this project, the goal is to engineer pathways from these organisms into another microbial host that can generate butanol. Butanol can be used as a fuel in an internal combustion engine and, along with ethanol, has long been considered one of the best biofuel options for transportation energy.

Using organisms to convert natural gas into liquid transportation fuels isn’t a new objective for the research community, according to Blake Simmons, manager of the biofuels and biomaterial science and technology group at Sandia National Laboratories, which is collaborating with MOgene oin the project.

“There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past,” says Simmons, “since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and survive and multiply off of natural gas metabolism. The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do.”

Why now? “People have been trying to express this class of enzymes for a couple of decades,” Simmons said, “so this definitely won’t be a slam dunk. But we have the collective experience and capabilities at Sandia to figure it out.”

It is not entirely clear at this stage whether the successful technique will be to re-engineer the core metabolism of these microbes, and make it faster in the native organisms. Or, we can take the metabolism out of those organisms and put it in something more industrially relevant.”

The Big Prize in methane conversion, and the Olive Economy

Numerous other teams are chasing the big prize with support from ARPA-E. Could it be as transformative as, say, fracking technology?

There’s reason to believe it could. Given that it unlocks so much upside value in the molecule in the way that fracking and horizontal drilling — for all the environmental concerns about the impacts — has unlocked value in the oil & gas field and in the well.

The combination of green chemistry and biology with traditional fossil fuel technologies— well, these are not renewables, and they are not as green as, say, biofuels. Not by a long shot. But they are greener than crude oil technologies. A transitional border territory — greener as opposed to green — that we have explored under the general heading of Green-Black technologies — or the Olive Economy. More on the Olive Economy here.

And more on Project REMOTE here.

Making new methane, from biomass: breakthroughs in understanding how to accelerate the process

The flip side of the natgas revolution is the use of methane made from biomass by anaerobic digesters. It’s “new methane” as opposed to “old methane” from gas wells and drilling activity. An important process for landfill avoidance and processing food waste. And, in it’s own way, a companion area of science in an era when methane is in focus as a feedstock for chemicals and fuels, as well as power.

For 40 years, scientists thought they understood how certain bacteria work together to produce methane gas. The accepted concept was that natural methane-producing microbial communities primarily exchange electrons through the production and consumption of hydrogen gas.

Organisms that build their own electrical wires

But microbiologists in Derek Lovley’s lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have demonstrated that the methane-producing bacterium Methanosaeta has the ability to reduce carbon dioxide to methane by making direct electrical connections with other microorganisms, something methanogens have never been known to do before.

Lovley’s group took up its task when they found that digesters converting brewery wastes to methane contained large quantities of the microorganism Geobacter. Geobacter cannot produce methane, but it does break down more complex substrates to compounds that methane-producing bacteria can use.

The UMass Amherst teams knew from previous studies that Geobacter grow electrically conductive filaments known as microbial nanowires, which can transport electrons outside the cell to make electrical connections with minerals, electrodes or other cells.

They dubbed this transfer the “direct interspecies electron transfer,” or DIET — and confirmed that when they used a strain of Geobacter genetically altered to prevent it from producing nanowires, and the process did not work.

A meeting point for synthetic biology and electric bioengineering

There are also short-term practical implications. “Once you realize that there are methane producers that can directly feed on electrons, you start thinking differently about how to optimize methane production from wastes,” Lovley noted. “Although generating methane from wastes is one of the oldest bioenergy strategies, it is slow.” Trying to speed methane production in large-scale operations can disrupt the microbes’ highly coordinated activity and systems can fail.

“Just as you need to upgrade electrical service in your house when you add more appliances, we made need to use synthetic biology or other engineering approaches to increase the capacity to move current through methanogenic microbial communities in digesters.”

The work of Lovley and team can be found in the current issue of the British Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Energy and Environmental Science, here.

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