increasing the oil recovery rate by 5% in average would represent the equivalent of the current worldwide consumption for 20 years
The classical oil recovery methods allow recovering only about 30% of the available oil in a reservoir, thus complementary processes have been developed to increase the recovery rates. The consulting company ALCIMED points out the increasing interest on one of these techniques: the use of microbes. Proposed since the 1920’s, this method has remained practically unseen, however, it now seems more promising due to the convergence of several factors: higher oil prices, the low amount of new reservoirs discovered, the advances of modern biotechnology and the recent discovery and characterization of indigenous microbes actually living in the reservoirs.
Today, one of the main stakes of oil companies is to increase the oil recovery rate “increasing the oil recovery rate by 5% in average would represent the equivalent of the current worldwide consumption for 20 years”, comments Vanessa GODEFROY, director of the Energy Business Unit of ALCIMED.
Today, three types of oil recovery methods are practiced: The most basic method called primary oil recovery consists of recuperating “passively” the most fluid amount of oil thanks to the existing pressure. To increase the recovery rate secondary recovery methods are used, in which the oil wells are flooded with several fluids (water, gas, vapour,…) allowing to modify the physicochemical properties or the reservoirs. But the average recovery rate obtained by using these classical methods is only of around 30%. In order to increase the recovery rate, the oil companies have developed more complex “tertiary” techniques (EOR or Enhanced Oil Recovery), but their use is not recurrent because of their high cost. These methods consist for example of injecting surfactants and polymers in the reservoirs to modify the viscosity and permeability of oil.
Until recently, the most complex methods were not economically feasible. But the high oil prices experienced in recent years and the fact that 70% of the world oil production comes from mature fields are partially changing the situation. Several of the methods that had been developed during the oil crisis of the 1970’s become interesting once again when the oil barrel price reaches 60 dollars.
Among the Enhanced Oil Recovery methods, a particularly exotic one is regaining attention: Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery (MEOR). Microbes (most often bacteria) and nutrients are injected in the oil wells in order to make them synthesize chemical compounds in-situ and facilitate the recovery of oil. The surge of modern biotechnology and of recombinant DNA technology are have allowed to improve this technique by modifying the bacterial strains and make them produce more adequate or larger amounts of surfactants or polymers. However, the main drawback has been the survival of the bacteria in these complex environments (high salinity, temperature and pressure).
This problem may be solved thanks to the use of modern equipment that is allowing to identify and characterize indigenous microbes actually living in the reservoirs and that are naturally resistant to the extreme conditions. These microbes could then be genetically modified to make them produce the desired compounds, or even to do an “in-situ refining”.
Among the oil companies, BP and StatoilHydro seem particularly interested in the subject. BP is one of the founding partners of the Energy Biosciences Institute, (among the University of California, Berkeley), who is doing research on MEOR among other subjects, such as the development of biofuels or better crops. BP has also signed a partnership with Synthetic Genomics (company founded by Craig Venter) in order to start to culture and characterize the different microbes present in the oil fields. StatoilHydro is also doing research on the subject, and claims to be the only company actually using MEOR in an offshore field, (in the Norwegian Sea).
“In the coming years, biotechnology will allow to create more advanced biofuels and reduce the dependency on oil; paradoxically, it might also help to extract the last barrels”, concludes Santiago MORALES, energy sector consultant at ALCIMED.
ALCIMED (www.alcimed.com) is a consulting and decision-aid Company specialized in life sciences (healthcare, biotechnology and agribusiness), chemistry, materials, energy and high-tech industries.
ALCIMED exists to help decision makers make the right strategic choices in terms of positioning and development. Its consultants bring about analysis and pragmatic answers to the questions raised by decision makers (R&D managers, marketing & sales managers, general management, business unit directors), by performing an investigation labor based on the best field specialists and experts in the world.
The ALCIMED team consists of 160 high-level engineers, organized by business sector, who are capable of carrying out extremely varied projects, from marketing and sales (market studies, targeting of new requirements, positioning of a new product…) to strategic issues (development strategy, research and evaluation of acquisition targets, business organization…)
The company has its headquarters in Paris, and is also present at Lyon and Toulouse, and has opened three subsidiaries in Europe (Spain, Germany and Switzerland).
Vanessa Godefroy / Santiago Morales: +33(0)144304430
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