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USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program

17-28. Revitalization of Hydraulically Fractured Shale Oil and Gas Wells Through Enhanced Microbial Natural Gas Production

Large increases in oil and natural gas production in the U.S. have been driven by unconventional technologies (directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing) in shale. With this technology there is a finite reserve of oil or gas that is available and once it has been recovered (sometimes after several rounds of hydraulic fracturing) the well is capped. It may be possible to extend the life of existing wells and associated infrastructure by promoting microbial gas production in existing shale wells. Microbially-produced (biogenic) natural gas is of interest because there is potential for regenerating biogenic gas by stimulating biodegradation of carbon sources in-situ. Microbial methane production (microbial methanogenesis) is relatively slow under natural conditions and would not be commercially viable; however, it may be possible to develop a methodology that would stimulate microbial methanogenesis in situ to produce economic quantities of biogenic gas within a reasonable time frame (months to years). Development of a viable methodology for the stimulation of microbial methanogenesis in shale would provide additional natural gas resources using existing infrastructure. In theory, many cycles of stimulation and production are possible if biodegradable organic matter remains accessible in the shale to microbes.

The USGS Energy Resources Program is examining the stimulation of microbial methanogenesis in coal. We have made substantial progress toward understanding the biogeochemical pathway leading from coal geopolymers to methane gas, and the major microbial groups involved along the biodegradation pathway. We have also developed a methodology for stimulating microbial methanogenesis in situ in coal beds. The methodology has been tested in laboratory bottles and upscaled experiments, and a field test of the methodology at a USGS test site in the Powder River Basin coal field in eastern Montana is pending. While shale differs in many respects from coal, we anticipate that many of the major biogeochemical pathways and microorganisms involved in the process will be similar in both environments. Also, based on our work in coal we have developed a template for how to conduct studies of stimulation of microbial methanogenesis in fossil energy deposits.

We seek a Mendenhall Fellow with a background in bioengineering and an understanding of microbiology, biogeochemistry, and related disciplines to conduct research on biogasification (microbial methanogenesis) of organic-rich shale. The postdoctoral researcher will be expected to conduct both laboratory and field investigations designed to provide insights on the detailed steps in the anaerobic biodegradation of coal from geopolymers to simple molecules utilized by methane-producing Archaea.

We invite innovative research proposals designed to increase our understanding of the potential for biogasification in shale. Integration and synthesis of datasets, along with novel approaches to enhance or better understand biogasification in shale are also encouraged. The areas outlined below would be essential to include in a submitted proposal, however exact specifics could be different and exploring additional topics would be important for a successful proposal.

  1. Evaluation of shale reservoirs producing biogenic methane. Determine areas in the United States favorable for shale biogasification by identifying environmental conditions and microbial populations based on a current literature review of shale reservoirs. This work would complement an assessment of biogenic gas production being conducted by the USGS.
  2. Field and laboratory studies of microbial methanogenesis of shale. Proposed field and laboratory studies should be designed to establish the levels of biogenic methane production under background conditions of unstimulated shale gas production (both oil and gas producing). Laboratory experiments should examine approaches for stimulating microbial gas production, including nutrient and substrate addition, substrate for stimulating microbial biomass, and physical/chemical changes to shale (e.g. oxidation) that may enhance bioavailability.
  3. Develop preliminary methodology. Developing a preliminary methodology for stimulation of microbial methanogenesis in hydraulically fractured shales must be included in the proposal.

Proposed Duty Station: Reston, VA

Areas of Ph.D.: Microbiology, bioengineering, biogeochemistry, or molecular biology with a focus on biodegradation processes; or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications: Research Biologist or Research Chemist (This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above. However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Research Advisor(s): William Orem, (703) 648-6273,; Elliott Barnhart, (406) 457-5921,; Leslie Ruppert,, (703) 648-6431; Jenna Shelton, (703) 648-6489,

Human Resources Office Contact: Carrie Marez,, 303 236-9555

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
URL: Orem.htm
Direct inquiries to Cara A. Campbell at
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Last modified: 11:07:40 Fri 08 Feb 2019
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