When poisonous hydrogen sulfide contaminates a natural gas deposit, the drilling company usually caps the well and moves on to other areas that may contain larger reserves and offer stronger economic incentives. Chemical and biological methods exist to purify these wells, but most are complex and costly. However, a group of scientists now is developing what could be a cheaper, easier method to clean up and utilize this polluted natural gas.
The technique—which involves growing “enrichment” cultures of bacteria that metabolize the hydrogen sulfide into harmless compounds—could be particularly useful to poor and energy-starved developing nations, says Norman Wainwright, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. “We're hoping the technique can be robust enough and inexpensive enough to be used in a developing country,” Wainwright says. Other scientists involved with the project are Porter Anderson, a University of Rochester professor emeritus associated with the lab and Ben Ebenhack, also of Rochester.