Stolen: Microbes have more to do with oil than dinosaurs |

Stolen: Microbes have more to do with oil than dinosaurs

by Dr. Joanne Stolen
A Coast Guard Cutter skims oil near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico Saturday, July 17, 2010. BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said Saturday afternoon the company would communicate if the trial was stopped. With no word from BP as 3:25 p.m. EDT passed, video footage showed the well was still plugged. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

It’s been over three months since the oil rig exploded and millions of barrels of crude oil gushed out into the Gulf of Mexico with wide-ranging repercussions on the environment and the economy. What is oil anyway? Isn’t it a natural product? Why then does it cause damage? Well for one, oils have a high carbon and hydrogen content, and are non-polar substances – meaning it does not dissolve in water and, because water and oil do not mix, excess oil can be toxic. It has endangered birds and sea life and the whole marine environment.

Oil has been used for more than 5,000-6,000 years by ancient civilizations. In North America, Native Americans used oil as medicine, and to make canoes water-proof. They skimmed it off the surface of streams and lakes. Later, the main demand for oil was in lamps. We now pump oil from below the surface of the ground and refine it into gasoline and other fuels.

Where does oil come from? I tell my micro students “microbes rule.” They might be small but they are mighty! Colonies of microbes exist in every environment and life itself would not exist without small microscopic creatures. So oil doesn’t really come from dead dinosaurs but from creatures the size of a pinhead called “diatoms,” and these one-celled organisms take light from the sun and convert it into energy. Diatoms float in the top of the oceans and lakes. My last article was about how the sun is linked to all life on earth, and so the sun is linked to the fuel we use in our cars. Petroleum molecules resemble the lipids found in the cell membranes of these tiny creatures. Whereas most of the dead material in the ocean and lakes is recycled by bacteria, lipids are tough, fat-like molecules that tend to be “hard to digest,” so they often get passed up and fall to the sea floor, where they become buried under layers of sediment. Subterranean microbes, heat and pressure turn these fat-like molecules into petroleum. Geologic formations trap the petroleum in a reservoir in rock. Sandstone has plenty of room inside itself to trap oil, just like a sponge, so it makes a good reservoir. The formation of reservoirs of oil can take from one million to one billion years. This oil in the reservoir is under great pressure, and hence we see what is happening in the Gulf as the oil is gushing out of the well (or at least was until last week; we’ll see how the new “cap” holds.)

So these fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – were formed many hundreds of thousands of years ago before the time of the dinosaurs. This is the fuel that runs modern society. We are so heavily dependent on it that is causes serious political tension and wars. It’s inevitable that reserves will one day run out. Many disagree on when this will occur, but it could begin as soon as increasing demand is greater than supplies. Some experts feel that serious shortage of oil might be years rather than decades away. This huge disaster in the Gulf of Mexico emphasizes the need to jump-start many of the alternative energy technologies. I like the solar, wind powered lights at Frisco Bay Marina. That’s one good step taken by a town in Summit County.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.

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