Coal-industry experts and professionals from around the world met at a conference in Laramie this week to discuss how to turn rock into gas, or more specifically, how to stimulate biogenic methane production from coal seams deep underground.
The Secondary Biogenic Coal Bed Natural Gas International Conference at the University of Wyoming Conference Center at the Hilton Garden Inn featured a technical program with seven sessions and 26 platform and poster presentations on biogenic methane production (methanogenesis).
"In part, a fear of low energy reserves is fueling a desire to develop new sources of energy," Patricia Colberg, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering at UW, said. "We also want to move away from foreign sources of energy."
Wyoming's Powder River Basin (PRB) is ground zero for methanogenesis experimentation and production with more than 30,000 wells drilled basin wide. The PRB in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana contains the largest known source of coal in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Much of this coal cannot be mined economically, but methanogenesis provides a way to extract energy from coal in situ.
"It's a large potential source of energy that can be collected economically," said Elizabeth Jones, research microbiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "It has a tremendous potential that has yet to be realized — and the nice thing about coal-bed natural gas is it burns clean."
Lab and field experiments have shown the PRB is essentially an active "geobioreactor" that can be stimulated within coal seams to spur methane production, according to William Mahaffey, chief technology officer at Luca Technologies. Since 2006, Luca Technologies, based in Golden, Colo., has conducted several hundred nutrient deployments in basins including the PRB's vast Wyodak coal seam, the top-producing coal seam in the United States.
"The most important thing is the catalyst," Mahaffey said. "The PRB's coal beds are essentially 'alive' with active methanogenic communities. We're stimulating indigenous micro-organisms to create more methane."
One of the more promising aspects of biogenic methane production in Wyoming is that existing wells and infrastructure can be utilized to stimulate methane production from old seams that contain coal that cannot be mined economically.
"We can utilize infrastructure that's already in place in Wyoming," Jones said. "Producing secondary natural gas is economical, and with coal formations worldwide this is a potential global source of clean energy technologies."
One company, ARCHTECH Inc.
, claims it has developed a zero-waste process that produces biogenic methane and other 'humic' products — or naturally decomposed plant or animal matter — for agriculture and environmental applications. ARCTECH has conducted some of its field studies in the PRB.
"We need to make a case that we can monetize the gas and do it in a safe and sustainable way," ARCHTECH founder Daman Walia said. "Then this technology will get some serious attention."
The biogenic conference concludes today. The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources
and the Center for Biogenic Natural Gas Research
sponsored the conference.
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