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Biodegradation of oil in uplifted basins prevented by deep-burial sterilization

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Stephen Larter, Professor Ian Head, Dr Paul Farrimond


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Biodegradation of crude oil by bacterial activity-which has occurred in the majority of the Earth's oil reserves(1)-is known to reduce greatly the quality of petroleum in reservoirs(2). For economically successful prospecting for oil, it is therefore important to understand the processes and conditions in geological formations that lead to oil biodegradation. Although recent studies speculate that bacterial activity can potentially occur up to temperatures as high as 150 degreesC (refs 3, 4), it is generally accepted that effective petroleum biodegradation over geological timescales generally occurs in reservoirs with temperatures below 80 degreesC (ref. 2). This appears, however, to be at odds with the observation that non-degraded oils can still be found in reservoirs below this temperature. Here we compile data regarding the extent of oil biodegradation in several oil reservoirs, and rnd that the extensive occurrence of non-biodegraded oil in shallow, cool basins is restricted to those that have been uplifted from deeper, hotter regions of the Earth. We suggest that these petroleum reservoirs were sterilized by heating to a temperature around 80-90 degreesC during deep burial, inactivating hydrocarbon-degrading organisms that occur in the deep biosphere. Even when such reservoirs are subsequently uplifted to much cooler regions and filled with oil, degradation does not occur, implying that the sterilized sediments are not recolonized by hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Wilhelms A, Larter SR, Head IM, Farrimond P, di-Primo R, Zwach C

Publication type: Note

Publication status: Published

Journal: Nature

Year: 2001

Volume: 414

Issue: 6859

Pages: 85

ISSN (print): 0028-0836

ISSN (electronic): 1476-4687


DOI: 10.1038/35102091