Imagine living in a place thousands feet deep down the earth, where water is three times more salty than seawater and where there is complete darkness. High pressure, high temperature, and high salinity. Even though it seems impossible for life to grow in such conditions, “Frackibacter” does it.
Frackibacter is a new genus of micro-organism living in wells left from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, discovered by Ohio State microbiologists and their colleagues.
The discovery that Frackibacter helps produce methane — which can be burned as a natural-gas fuel — is significant to Ohio’s energy industry, because almost half the state has shale rock, a deep underground rock in which hydraulic fracturing wells are operated.
The discovery might also contribute to the entire energy industry, since researchers estimated that Frackibacter might commonly exist in hydraulic fracturing wells across the U.S.
Micheal Wilkins, an assistant professor in earth science and microbiology who helped lead the study, said Frackibacter one of 31 microbes that OSU researchers detected in two hydraulic fracturing wells they studied.
“This is an organism that we haven’t seen before in any other ecosystems,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins and his team discovered that Frackibacter has the potential to increase the energy output of hydraulic fracturing wells through a chemical process.
During the process, Frackibacter helps convert compounds into food for methanogens, a type of chemical that generates natural gas such as methane.
While most methane was formed millions years ago, this finding suggests that methane is also generated during this process, Wilkins said.
Even though researchers are not sure how much methane can be produced by Frackibacter, they pointed out that it at least has the potential to augment gas production.
Rebecca Daly, a research associate in microbiology, said it is possible to cause Frackibacter, along with other microbes, to generate more methane by stimulating the chemical process.
“Future research could optimize system to stimulate that process, especially when the well stops giving natural gas that’s from the shale formation itself,” Daly said.
Mikayla Borton, a first-year graduate student studying environmental science, compared the two hydraulic fracturing wells in the research. Surprisingly, she said that even though they were thousands miles apart, they developed similar microbial communities where Frackibacter is found.
Researchers are not certain of where Frackibacter comes from, whether from the shale itself or generated by hydraulic fracturing process. Future research will examine Frackibacter’s origin and more of its applications.