Methane-generating microbe to help power India

28 Aug 2017 28 Aug 2017

UNSW Australia-led researchers have discovered a way to produce a tenfold increase in the amount of methane gas emitted by naturally occurring microbes living in coal seams and on food waste.

The innovation could benefit the environment by extending the lifespan of coal seam gas wells, as well as improving the economics of using woody crops and left-over food as commercial sources of biogas.

Seen traditionally as a potential hazard to coal miners, methane trapped in coal-beds has been considered a nuisance. However, if tapped properly methane has potential as an abundant clean energy supply to help replace other diminishing hydrocarbon reserves, and has proved to be a major unconventional resource in the oil and gas industry.

Yet the supply of the coal-seam methane has not been abundant enough to be extracted at an industrial scale.

The 2016 research by UNSW found that application of "novel crystalline form of the synthetic phenazine neutral red" that has been shown to enhance methane production. This means that small amounts of synthetic dye helps the methane-producing microbes grow faster in the coal seams. "The chemical inducer (dye) forms needle-like crystals that transfer protons to microbial cell membrane, causing them to grow faster and the growth process aids in more methane production," says TERI researcher Dr Meeta Lavania.

TERI and UNSW formed a partnership on hotwiring microbial communities for enhanced unconventional gas production – which is deploying this technology for industrial application of the methane production in coal seams gas wells operated by ONGC.

In his visit to TERI campus in New Delhi on Monday (28 August 2017), Hon Keith Pitt, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment was given an introduction to this technology of tapping the microbial action for coal-bed methane as one of the largest unconventional natural gas resources. The Minister is India on his maiden visit, and was in TERI to take stock of the project on hotwiring microbial communities for enhanced unconventional gas, besides being shown around the TERI laboratory where the culture of microbes is being developed.

The technology has been in the Bokaro coal fields in India and has resulted in about three-fold increase in gas production, says Mr Rohit M Rathi, Project Associate, Microbial Biotechnology.

According to Dr Banwari Lal, Director of the Environmental and Industrial Biotechnology Division at TERI, this technology could extend the life of coal seam gas wells and greatly boost gas yields from bio-digesters that use carbon neutral organic waste to generate methane for electricity production.

Coal seams
Biogas production
Methane emissions
Microbial bioremediation
Power generation