'Coal-Eating' Bugs May Solve Energy Crisis

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". . .the discovery could open up the world's coalfields to an entirely new form of mining. . ."

Craig Venter, the controversial American scientist who helped decode the human genome, has announced the discovery of ancient bacteria that can turn coal into methane, suggesting they may help to solve the world's energy crisis.

The bugs, discovered a mile underground by one of Venter's microbial prospecting teams, are said to have unique enzymes that can break down coal. Venter said he was already working with BP on how to exploit the find.

Venter even suggested the discovery could open up the world's coalfields to an entirely new form of mining, where coal is infected with the bacteria, allowing methane to be harvested "without even digging up the coal."

Venter, speaking at the recent La Jolla research and innovation summit, in La Jolla, California, told an audience of researchers and technology investors how he had harvested 20m new genes by analyzing the DNA of micro-organisms collected underwater or deep underground.

He flashed up a black-and-white image of a piece of coal that appeared to be carpeted with a mossy substance, saying: "We have a large number that eat coal and break it down into organic acids, hydrogen, CO2 and so on. Then we have other organisms with enzymes that can take those organic acids, hydrogen and CO2 and make methane."

He also showed a second image with coal submerged in a liquid from which bubbles, said to be methane, were rising.

He added: "We and BP think we can scale this up substantially to provide a huge increase in the amount of natural gas available without even digging up the coal."

If it worked, the potential would be huge. Coal is the world's most important fossil fuel with about 6.5 billion tons used each year. This is expected to rise by more than 60% by 2030.

This has serious environmental implications because coal is highly polluting, generating more CO2 per ton than any other major fossil fuel.

Methane, by contrast, is significantly less polluting.

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