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Effect of an algal amendment on the microbial conversion of coal to methane at different sulfate concentrations from the Powder River Basin, USA

September 29, 2021

Biogenic methane is estimated to account for one-fifth of the natural gas worldwide and there is great interest in controlling methane from different sources. Biogenic coalbed methane (CBM) production relies on syntrophic associations between fermentative bacteria and methanogenic archaea to anaerobically degrade recalcitrant coal and produce methanogenic substrates. However, very little is known about how differences in geochemistry, hydrology, and microbial community composition influence subsurface carbon utilization and CBM production. The addition of an amendment consisting of microalgal biomass has previously been shown to increase CBM production while providing the possibility of a closed-loop fossil system where waste (production water) is used to grow algae to ultimately produce energy (methane). However, the efficiency of enhancing CBM production under different redox conditions remains unresolved. In this study, we focused on the U.S. Geological Survey's Birney test site (Montana, USA) that has nine wells vertically accessing four coal seams with varying geochemistry (low and high sulfate (SO42−)) and methane production rates. We used organic matter (OM) in the form of algal biomass to discern the effect of this amendment on OM degradation and microbially enhanced CBM production potential under different geochemical constraints. We tracked changes in community composition, OM composition, organic carbon (OC) concentration, methane production, and nutrients in batch systems over six months. Methane production was detected only in microcosms from low SO42− wells (168 to 800 μg methane per gram of coal). The OC consumption varied across time for all wells and the variation was greatest for the low SO42− wells. Different groups of syntrophic bacteria were associated with net‑carbon consuming microcosms, and specifically Syntrophorhabdus was identified with several different statistical methods as a potentially important coal degrader. Results from this study provide insight into potential coal-degraders, the compositional changes in some of the different OM fractions, and trends in carbon consumption related to methane production across coal seams along the vertical SO42− gradient.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Effect of an algal amendment on the microbial conversion of coal to methane at different sulfate concentrations from the Powder River Basin, USA
DOI 10.1016/j.coal.2021.103860
Authors Heidi J. Smith, Hannah S. Schweitzer, Elliott Barnhart, William H. Orem, Robin Gerlach, Matthew W. Fields
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title International Journal of Coal Geology
Index ID 70225742
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WY-MT Water Science Center