Meet Me at the World’s Flare; Methane Gas Flaring, and the Role of Biobased Tech
by Jim Lane (Biofuels Digest) … The flares — Dakota fireflies — dot the landscape like pin-lights. They burn natural gas escaping from the unconnected Bakken oil field wells, which are coaxing energy out of 9,000 working sites in the area. By 2030, there are expected to be 50,000.
You can see the flares from space. In fact, they form lights that are almost as bright as the cities of Chicago and Minnesota, and way brighter than anything in this neck of the woods. In all, the well owner are flaring more than a quarter-million cubic feet each day — more than a billion dollars in lost revenue each year. It’s not helping with pollution, either.
You might ask, why not simply build pipelines or truck and rail the gas to markets.
The Bakken play is oil, oil, oil
As Primus Green Energy VP Greg Boyajian explains, “The challenge, the Bakken play is 95-97 percent oil, and flaring costs you money, but it is 3 percent of the money. You can drill another hole and make money, or invest in gas that represents 3 percent of the revenue. Sure, North Dakota is trying to incentivize uses for flared gas through tax and incentives. But the Bakken is oil, oil, oil — and natural gas is a rounding error.”
More than 2,000 miles of gas pipeline per year are being built in North Dakota, and there are more than 18,000 miles in the Bakken, $2 million per mile adds up quickly, and right now, rules permit operators to flare gas without paying taxes or royalties for the first year of production, and get an exemption thereafter if it is uneconomical to connect a well to a pipeline.
For that reason, ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) launched a $34 million effort in natural gas conversion earlier this year, called Project REMOTE. REMOTE stands for Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy, and it aims at developing advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation. We suspect that the technologies ultimately will be deployed for higher-value chemicals, as well.
Using organisms to convert natural gas into liquid transportation fuels isn’t a new objective for the research community, according to Blake Simmons, manager of the biofuels and biomaterial science and technology group at Sandia National Laboratories, which is collaborating with MOgene on the project.
(W)ell, these are not renewables, and they are not as green as, say, biofuels. Not by a long shot. But they are greener than crude oil technologies. A transitional border territory — greener as opposed to green — that we have explored under the general heading of Green-Black technologies — or the Olive Economy. More on the Olive Economy here.
And more on Project REMOTE here.
The flip side of the natgas revolution is the use of methane made from biomass by anaerobic digesters. It’s “new methane” as opposed to “old methane” from gas wells and drilling activity. An important process for landfill avoidance and processing food waste. And, in it’s own way, a companion area of science in an era when methane is in focus as a feedstock for chemicals and fuels, as well as power.
“Just as you need to upgrade electrical service in your house when you add more appliances, we made need to use synthetic biology or other engineering approaches to increase the capacity to move current through methanogenic microbial communities in digesters.”
The work of (Derek) Lovley and team can be found in the current issue of the British Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Energy and Environmental Science, here. READ MORE