Researchers on campus may have found a process that could bring prosperity back to Oklahoma oil fields.

Joseph Suflita, professor of botany and microbiology, heads a research group at Sarkeys Energy Center that is researching anaerobes, small organisms that live without oxygen.

Suflita said his work has focused on processes in which these organisms break down pollutant substances such as fossil fuel hydrocarbons.

"Our research started by trying to understand how nature responds to natural disasters like oil spills," he said.

The research led to the discovery of bacteria that work together to break down oil and change it into natural gas.

There are two very different kinds of bacteria involved in the process, methanogens and eubacteria. Initially, the eubacteria breaks down fossil fuel pollutants and the methanogen eats the smaller pieces, which then produces methane--the main substance comprising natural gas.

Suflita said natural gas can be used in various ways, including as diesel fuel used as fuel for power plants, in addition to more traditional uses like powering heaters and stoves. He said he hopes the discovery of this process will increase demand for Oklahoma oil by creating a new and profitable use for it.

"It's a simpler process to burn methane and it's much cheaper and environmentally cleaner," he said.

Oklahoma has lost about 61 percent of its oil industry in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

The OCC also reported that Oklahoma produced about 168.6 million barrels of oil in 1984, but the DOE estimates Oklahoma will only produce about 66 million in 2004.

Roy Knapp, chair professor at the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, said there is a good chance for the discovery to play a role in the oil industry.

He predicted the process may become a significant source of energy if the bacterial process could be carried out on a large enough scale.

Some students studying to work in the oil industry said that if this process becomes marketable, it may be good for their jobs, the industry and the environment.

Oladipo Ashafa, petroleum engineering junior, said the discovery may benefit the oil industry's job market if it is developed wisely.

"It will be good for the jobs because it is good for the way people see the industry," Ashafa said.

The oil industry suffers because of the image it has as being anti-environment, he said.

Suflita said that the speed of the research is impacted by how much funding there is. The research team is willing to work with other schools or universities to speed things up, he said.

"Funding decides the pace of our research, so we are open to cooperation," Suflita said.hello there & you too

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