Biogenic sulfide production is a common problem in the oil industry, and can lead to costly hydrocarbon processing and corrosion of extraction infrastructure. The same phenomenon has recently been identified in shale gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, and organic additives in fracturing fluid have been hypothesised to stimulate this process. Constraining the relative effects of the numerous organic additives on microbial metabolism in situ is, however, extremely challenging.
Using a bespoke bioreactor system we sought to assess the potential for guar gum, the most commonly used gelling agent in fracturing fluids, to stimulate biogenic sulfide production by sulfate-reducing microorganisms at elevated pressure. Two pressurised bioreactors were fed with either sulfate-amended freshwater medium, or low-sulfate natural surface water, in addition to guar gum (0.05 w/v%) and an inoculum of sulfate-reducing bacteria for a period of 77 days. Sulfide production was observed in both bioreactors, even when the sulfate concentration was low. Analysis of 16S rRNA gene sequences indicate that heterotrophic bacteria closely associated with the genera Brevundimonas and Acinetobacter became enriched early in the bioreactor experiments, followed by an increase in relative abundance of 16S rRNA genes associated with sulfate-reducing bacteria (Desulfosporosinus and Desulfobacteraceae) at later time points.
Results demonstrate that guar gum can stimulate acid- and sulfide-producing microorganisms at elevated pressure, and may have implications for the potential role in microbially-induced corrosion during hydraulic fracturing operations. Key differences between experimental and in situ conditions are discussed, as well as additional sources of carbon and energy for biogenic sulfide production during shale gas extraction. Our laboratory approach can be tailored to better simulate deep subsurface conditions in order to probe the role of other fracturing fluid additives and downhole parameters on microbial metabolisms observed in these systems. Such baseline studies will prove essential for effective future development of shale gas worldwide.