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Big Oil, Tiny Barons: Microbes can unleash trapped petroleum

Supply shortages have pushed oil prices above $70 per barrel, but nearly 380 billion barrels of crude oil—in the United States alone—are stuck in the pores of rocks or on the surfaces of sand grains. A new study proves the feasibility of using specialized microbes to lift trapped oil that's inaccessible to current pumping technologies.

Several decades ago, researchers found that bacteria in the genus Bacillus produce detergent molecules as waste. Some preliminary lab and field studies suggested as adding these microbes to oil wells could release significant amounts of trapped oil in the same way as detergent lifts stains out of clothing. However, other work showed that the microbes had no effect, says microbiologist Michael McInerney of the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

McInerney and his team have now conducted a rigorous test of microbial activity both in the lab and in some small oil wells.

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