The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) conducts ongoing research in geomicrobiology to characterize microbial communities and relevant microbial processes in environments related to energy production.

Microbial processes affect reservoir properties such as porosity, permeability, pH, and interstitial fluid chemistry. Characterization of dominant microbial communities and respective microbial processes will help researchers optimize oil and gas production, carbon storage, and waste management. Further utilization of these microbial communities recovered from energy environments may lead to development of biotechnology for alternative energy, enhanced energy recovery, or treatment/upgrading of energy waste streams.

Access to environmental samples related to energy production such as oil and gas fields, carbon storage reservoirs, fluid impoundments, and coalbed reservoirs is key to successful metagenomic analysis. Traditionally, these types of samples have been difficult to obtain. However, because NETL is the only U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory devoted to fossil energy research, it has forged connections within the energy industry that can facilitate acquisition of relevant samples.

NETL key capabilities also ensure success in the investigation of microbial communities and their biological processes. These capabilities include:

  • Anaerobic reactors and high-pressure, high-temperature reactor vessels to simulate subsurface conditions
  • Capabilities to cultivate microbial communities in strict anaerobic environments
  • Next generation sequencing  methods to investigate abundant microorganisms of various energy environments
  • Metagenomic and metatranscriptomic analysis experience to determine the functional potential and functional expression of microbial communities in energy environments
  • Bioinformatic capabilities that allow processing and detailed analysis of sequencing data
  • Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to evaluate approximate microbial population and functional gene concentration in energy environments
  • Fluid Chemistry Laboratory and Material Characterization Laboratory to measure inorganic and organic constituents in formation fluids and solids

NETL has amassed a wealth of knowledge and operates with unique expertise in various energy processes and geomicrobiology. By combining and refining these tools, the Laboratory can fill knowledge gaps in the complex biogeochemical systems common in environments related to energy production. A better understanding of geomicrobiology will facilitate new technologies in a variety of energy fields. Ongoing research includes characterizing the microbial community in environments, such as:

  • Future carbon storage reservoirs and CO2 storage/leakage analogues
  • Produced water and impoundment fluids in unconventional resource environments
  • Coalbed environments
  • Biocide-amended produced waters
  • Coal and gas reservoirs affected by acid mine drainage
  • Fossil fuel  power plant waste streams