Biocorrosion: Predicting and responding to new types of microbially-influenced corrosion in the oil and gas industry

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Civil Engineering and Geosciences


Corrosion of metals affects multiple industries and poses major risks to the environment and human safety, and is estimated to cause economic losses in excess of £2.5 trillion worldwide (around 6% of global GDP). Microbiologically-influenced corrosion (MIC) is believed to play a major role in this, but precise estimates are prevented by our limited understanding of MIC-related processes.

In the oil and gas sector biocorrosion is usually linked to the problem of "souring" caused by sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) that produce corrosive hydrogen sulfide in subsurface reservoirs and topsides facilities. To combat souring, reservoir engineers have begun turning to nitrate injection as a green biotechnology whereby sulfide removal can be catalysed by diverse sulfide-oxidising nitrate-reducing bacteria (soNRB). However, this promising technology is threatened by reports that soNRB could enhance localized corrosion through incomplete oxidation of sulfide to corrosive sulfur intermediates. It is likely that soNRB are corrosive under certain circumstances; end products of soNRB metabolism vary depending prevailing levels of sulfide (i.e., from the SRB-catalyzed reservoir souring) and nitrate (i.e., the engineering "nitrate dose" introduced to combat souring). Furthermore soNRB corrosion will depend on the specific physiological features of the particular strains present, which vary from field to field, but usually include members of the Epsilonproteobacteria - the most frequently detected bacterial phylum in 16S rRNA genomic surveys of medium temperature oil fields.

A new era of biological knowledge is dawning with the advent of inexpensive, high throughput nucleic acid sequencing technologies that can now be applied to microbial genomics. New high throughput sequencing platforms are allowing unprecedented levels of interrogation of microbial communities at the DNA (genomic) and RNA (transcriptomic) levels. Engineering biology aims to harness the power of this biological "-omics" revolution by bringing these powerful tools to bear on industrial problems like biocorrosion.

This project will combine genomics and transcriptomics with process measurements of soNRB metabolism and real time corrosion monitoring via linear polarization resistance. By measuring all of these variables in experimental oil field microcosms, and scaling-up to pan-industry oil field screening, a predictive understanding of corrosion linked to nitrogen and sulfur biotransformations will emerge, putting new diagnostic genomics assays in the hands of petroleum engineers.

The oil industry needs green technologies like nitrate injection. This research will develop new approaches that will safeguard this promising technology by allowing nitrate-associated biocorrosion potential to be assessed in advance. This will enhance nitrate injection's ongoing successful application to be based on informed risk assessments.

Planned Impact

Our high living standards in the UK are inextricably linked to fossil fuel energy. Currently fossil fuels account for greater than 80% of global primary energy supply. It is widely acknowledged that this must drop, and in the future new technologies for renewable energy will be required to replace fossil fuels. But when will this future arrive? Even under optimistic projections of rapid innovation and modest global population growth, fossil fuels will still supply 70% of our energy in 2030 (International Energy Agency, 2010). It is clear that our transition towards more sustainable energy sources will require several decades and that fossil fuels will continue to be essential. It is therefore critical to UK society and the UK economy that development of new energy technology includes a focus on the fossil fuels sector so that existing resources are exploited as responsibly and sustainably as possible during this slow transition.

One of the most promising and 'green' biotechnologies in the oil industry is nitrate injection for the microbiological control of reservoir souring. This is important due to the corrosion problems that have long been linked to souring, however, recently oil companies have observed that nitrate-induced biological reactions may actual worsen corrosion problems, e.g., accelerated corrosion rates and localized 'pitting' that can lead to failures in pipelines and other production equipment. The BIOCORROSION proposal aims to understand this process of nitrate-induced corrosion such that the ongoing use of nitrate-based bioengineering in the oil industry is safeguarded.

Corrosion problems affect many industries, not just the oil industry. The scale of the damage caused by metal corrosion is vast with many sectors of the economy suffering losses due to corrosion problems. On a global scale, corrosion losses exceed £2,500,000,000 per year. In the UK the main sectors that are regular victims of corrosion damage include public utilities as well as the construction, marine, transportation and oil and gas industries. Corrosion damage can lead to economic losses in a variety of ways including shutdowns, replacement costs, corrosion prevention coatings, structural failures and the release or spills of products. This list reflects that corrosion is not only an economic problem, but is also associated with significant health and safety risks.

By focusing specifically biocorrosion catalyzed by sulfide-oxidizing nitrate-reducing bacteria (soNRB) this research will be most relevant to the energy sector and engineers working in oil and gas production. As such, the main beneficiaries of the research will be oil companies. The UK hosts a major offshore oil industry that contributes significantly to national employment and economic prosperity. UK-based partners on the PI's Career Acceleration Fellowship include Shell, Chevron North Sea and Rawwater Engineering Ltd. These and other stakeholders represent beneficiaries that the PI has direct contact with.

Impact will be achieved primarily through participation at industry meetings and forums including those that publish conference proceedings that are widely read within the oil industry (see Pathways to Impact document). Furthermore, the team will strive to publish BIOCORROSION research in high impact peer review journals and present results at prominent environmental microbiology conferences (see Academic Beneficiaries section).

Additional beneficiaries will include policy makers focused on understanding the extent of economic losses due to corrosion (see above) and who may be undertaking materials standards regulations related to corrosion ratings of metal equipment.


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Description New insights into which S compounds may be exacerbating corrosion of metal by oil field nitrate reducing bacteria. This is being presented at an oil industry conference in London in November 2014 by the post doc (Sven Lahme) who was recruited to this project. The work was presented again at the same meeting in 2016, and led to an invited book chapter on Microbially Influenced Corrosion
Exploitation Route ExxonMobil has proposed a research project in this area for $300,000 USD. This is running from Nov 2014 through to May 2018 and has allowed the EPSRC project and team to be enlarged, e.g., through the recruitment of a technician.
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company's Engineering Department has proposed a collaboration in this area supported by $300k USD in funding. The collaboration began in November 2014 and our research team (two EPSRC funded post docs, and since summer 2016 an EPSRC funded technician) have held three meetings (year 0, year 1, year 2) meetings with company collaborators (led by Dr. Dennis Enning, corrosion engineer) in London, Houston and Newcastle, respectively.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Economic

Description Genome Canada biocorrosion project in Calgary AB Canada led by Lisa Gieg with Sven Lahme and Casey Hubert as co-applicants
Amount $4,000,000 (CAD)
Organisation Genome Canada 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Canada
Start 10/2016 
End 09/2020
Description Marie Curie Fellowship to Dr. Sven Lahme, Newcastle University
Amount € 180,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Union 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2017
Description ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company 
Organisation ExxonMobil
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Research related to reservoir souring control and corrosion under nitrate-reducing conditions
Collaborator Contribution £180k research grant from the company related to our EPSRC research directions
Impact Book chapter invitation; conference presentations; two project meetings (one in London, one in Houston)
Start Year 2014