The microbe hunter

Science & technology

Everything about the energy business is big: The depths of offshore oil and gas fields, the massive oil and LNG tankers, the thousands of miles of pipeline, and, of course, the millions of barrels used every single day by the world’s consumers. Most aspects of the global oil and gas business operate on a grand scale.

Then there is Dennis Enning.

Enning works on a scale that’s small, very small – tiny, in fact, but far from insignificant. Enning is a microbiologist and he has dedicated much of his professional life to studying microorganisms, miniscule living things invisible to the unaided human eye.Photo Dennis Enning

While they may be small, these organisms have a big impact on our planet. After all, Enning explains, “the very fact that we are able to breathe, is due to microorganisms.” In this case he’s talking about cyanobacteria, water-borne bacteria that eons ago provided our previously inhospitable planet with an oxygen atmosphere.

Enning earned a Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in his native Germany. Today, he studies microorganisms for ExxonMobil. This might surprise some. The reality, though, is that a good knowledge of microorganisms is essential because for all the good things microbes do, like fighting diseases and cleaning up the environment, they can also cause an incredible amount of damage.

It makes sense for energy companies like ExxonMobil to have experts like Enning around to study microbial corrosion, which occurs when microorganisms or their metabolic products eat away at the iron used in the industry’s steel pipelines.

If left untreated microbial corrosion can puncture pipelines designed to withstand some of the world’s most challenging conditions. “When most people see corrosion, they actually see rust,” Enning says. “But unlike rusting, which happens when iron comes into contact with water and oxygen, microbial corrosion usually happens in oxygen-free environments.” In fact, these specific microorganisms pre-date humans’ time on the planet – their ability to feed off iron in oxygen-free environments probably evolved long before the Iron Age, when humans first brought iron ore out of the ground and turned it into metallic iron and steel. Since microbial corrosion usually occurs in these types of environments, it is a much more hidden process than rusting of steel exposed to moist air.

Working out of the Laboratory for Petroleum Microbiology, part of ExxonMobil’s Friendswood Testing facility in Texas, Enning and his team develop strategies for managing and preventing microbial corrosion. “Improving the ways we mitigate and detect microbial corrosion in our pipelines not only makes financial sense, it also strengthens pipeline safety,” Enning explains.

At the lab, scientists replicate environments that foster microbial corrosion. The process starts by cultivating pipeline-corroding microorganisms in an environment that mimics the temperature and pressure typically found in oil and gas pipelines. This allows Enning and his team to conduct a variety of experiments to develop treatments that combat the microorganisms on their home turf.

Furthermore, their research leads to concrete solutions that mitigate and prevent microbial corrosion of pipelines. For example, by identifying the actual microbial composition of a sample through DNA analysis, the correct chemical inhibitors can be applied in the field to protect pipelines that show signs of microbial corrosion. This is in addition to regularly scheduled pipeline maintenance that ensures corrosion is caught and corrected before it becomes a problem.

The tiny microorganisms Enning has dedicated his scientific life to studying are resilient, nimble, and adjust to the most challenging environments. But through persistent research, the microbiology lab is constantly improving the way ExxonMobil identifies and treats corroding pipelines.

For his part Enning maintains great respect for the microorganisms he studies. “They continue to surprise and fascinate me,” he says. “I still have a childlike pleasure when I look at one of my lab cultures and think about the impact these tiny organisms have on our environment and planet.”

Tags:   corrosionmicrobesmicrobiologypipelines
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