Count some methane-eating extremophiles among the treasures pulled from Lead’s old Homestake Mine.
A $6 million federal grant project led by South Dakota School of Mines & Technology will attempt to harness an unusual appetite for methane gas discovered in microbes found deep in the Sanford Underground Research Facility.
Rajesh Sani, associate professor in the chemical and biological engineering department at Mines and the principal investigator, said the exotic bugs found in extreme conditions at SURF and under Yellowstone National Park show great promise for three things:
• Producing unique biodegradable plastics.
• Producing electricity from space waste.
• Converting natural gas to methanol — the alcohol commonly mixed with gasoline.
By efficiently eating methane, these bugs also hold potential to reduce a greenhouse gas that pound for pound is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In other places, researchers are working with common microbes already known to eat methane. They eat it, Sani said, but they don’t care for it. The never-before-studied extremophiles, meanwhile, have a real taste for methane.
“Our bugs are better,” Sani said.
The bugs are far too small to see without a powerful microscope.
Mines’ initiative will involve 21 scientists from three universities, including Oklahoma and Montana State. The four-year National Science Foundation project will produce foundational science, or basic understanding, but Sani believes useable technologies will result within four years. Four companies have shown an interest, he said.
The project is named Building Genome-to-Phenome Infrastructure for Regulating Methane in Deep and Extreme Environments — “bug remedy” for short.
Among other things, investigators will study how genetic modification of these bugs alters their characteristics or expression — their phenome. The products created could be quite valuable, Sani said.
Polymers formed within the microbes’ cells could be used to make plastics that break down faster than those created from petroleum, becoming a boon for the environment. Polymers make up a $500 billion industry, Sani said.
Meanwhile, a process to convert inexpensive natural gas directly to methanol would be useful to the fuel industry.
Production of electricity from methanol would fill special niches, such as converting gases from food waste on the International Space Station into electricity. That would lessen the need for extremely expensive resupply in space.
Sani noted that a recent study estimates the methane produced by livestock comprises 15 percent of greenhouse gases. New technology developed from the project might help, he said. The difficulty comes in capturing the gas.