April 22, 1999
UPTON, NY - Tiny, naturally occurring bacteria may be the answer to two problems that weigh heavily on the oil industry: vast reserves of crude oil left in the ground by conventional extraction techniques, and crudes too heavy and impure to refine easily into clean-burning fuel.
A new technology that uses special bacterial biocatalysts has been shown to remove up to half of the impurities like sulfur, nitrogen and metals from crude oil either before or after it is removed from the ground.. When injected directly into oil wells, the biocatalysts contribute to the breakdown of the crude for easier extraction - a form of microbially enhanced oil recovery that could soon get its first test in China, in one of the world's largest oil fields.
The technique was invented and patented by Eugene Premuzic and Mow Lin, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. It has now been licensed exclusively to BioCat of Setauket, NY.
In either application, it improves crude oil's physical and chemical properties, increasing its value and reducing emissions when the crude is refined and used as fuel. Major oil companies Chevron, Shell and Texaco are working together with BioCat to complement a current program at BNL directed toward developing technology so it can be applied on an industrial scale.
Said Premuzic, "This approach holds the key to the cost-effective recovery of even the heaviest crudes, which make up over 60 percent of the world's known oil reserves but which are now trapped below the surface and are difficult and costly to recover by conventional methods."
Added BioCat's Phil Palmedo, "This approach looks beyond the short term to meet the long-term strategic needs of the nation and the world. Oil resources once deemed out of practical reach will now be made available for processing so that the resulting fuels will burn more cleanly."
Crude oil is a dense, dark fluid containing many varieties of complex hydrocarbon molecules, along with organic impurities containing sulfur, nitrogen, and heavy metals. The hydrocarbons are the raw material for the entire petroleum industry, providing the feedstock for refineries and the basis for everything from gasoline to plastic.
Natural variation in oil's characteristics among different regions - or even within the same oil field - creates different grades that range from heavy oil with high concentrations of large hydrocarbon molecules to so-called lighter, "sweeter" crude with smaller hydrocarbons.
The heavier a crude oil is, the more difficult a challenge it presents in extracting it from the ground and purifying it into end products. Crude oil's physical properties, such as viscosity, and its chemical impurities affect the cost of recovery and refining, and the amount of waste produced in processing. New air-pollution regulations have tightened the restrictions on the amount of impurities, such as sulfur, that can remain in petroleum products used as fuel. So, oil companies have focused on bringing up the lighter oil and leaving denser oil under ground.
But industry predictions show that the supply of light crudes is dwindling, leaving an increasing proportion of heavy grades for future use. In fact, most of the Western Hemisphere's remaining oil is heavy crude, creating a strong strategic incentive to find new ways to extract and use it.
Conventional technology for extracting petroleum typically leaves behind more than 60 percent of the original oil. Also, today's technology is not cost-effective for the lowest-grade crudes. So, Brookhaven scientists have worked for several years to develop bacterial biocatalysts that can withstand the extreme temperature, pressure and harsh conditions of oil wells while chemically and physically altering crude oil.
The biocatalysts are based on bacterial strains that have been isolated and patented by Brookhaven. The strains - called extremophiles because of their ability to thrive in extreme conditions - are capable of converting heavy hydrocarbons to cleaner feedstocks. Lab-scale tests have shown they reduce organic sulfur and nitrogen concentrations by up to 40 percent, and metals by up to 50 percent.
Through carefully controlled conditions, the biocatalysts can be adapted to the exact characteristics of different forms of crude oil, whether from California, Mexico, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia or Canada. The patented process involves gradual adaptive changes in experimental conditions, rather than genetic manipulation of the original bacterial strains.
Once crude has been produced, the BNL process can also act as a desirable refinery pretreatment, removing much of the sulfur, nitrogen and metals. Besides enhancing the overall efficiency of the refining process, this action has a positive impact on factors that can contribute to global climate change. The process also naturally produces surfactants and oxygenates.
BioCat, whose mission is to provide technology-based services to the oil industry, has exclusively licensed all five of Brookhaven's patents and various patent applications relating to the process. BioCat was created through the Long Island Research Institute and DEC Consultants, and was incorporated in 1996. The Petroleum Industry Research Association has acted as a valuable consultant to the project.
The biochemical technology effort at Brookhaven has benefited from funding support provided largely by the Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy, including its National Petroleum Technology Office in Oklahoma.