University of Rochester

Researchers Search for Abandoned Gas Wells for Use in Study

August 21, 1997

Two researchers are combing gas-rich areas of Michigan, Alabama, and New York in search of well-owners willing to allow them to study hydrogen sulfide contamination in natural gas wells on their property. The pair, working to develop a new technique for cleaning up and reclaiming wells, are offering payment to those who participate.

The ultimate goal of the project, led by Ben Ebenhack of the University of Rochester and Porter Anderson of the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory, is to resurrect wells in developing nations that major gas companies consider too small to pursue. The pair hopes eventually to unlock these gas reserves, providing poor nations with a potent new economic lifeline.

"Developing nations are littered with potentially lucrative natural gas wells that major companies have deemed too small to bother tapping into," says Ebenhack, formerly an international exploration manager at a multinational oil corporation. "These companies may not feel that a well containing millions of dollars' worth of gas is worth developing, but most poor nations would beg to differ."

One problem with some of these untapped gas deposits is that their contents are contaminated by hydrogen sulfide, possibly leached from surrounding rock. Treatment plants can use a chemical process to remove this contaminant from the gas, but hydrogen sulfide's extreme corrosiveness dictates that such plants be constructed entirely of expensive stainless steel. With these gas-sweetening plants so costly to build and operate, most companies opt to construct them only for the largest of natural gas reserves.

Ebenhack and Anderson -- a bacteriologist widely known for his pioneering work in the development of a vaccine against the microbes responsible for bacterial meningitis -- propose instead to use bacteria that consume hydrogen sulfide. These bacteria break the toxic chemical down into harmless sulfur-rich compounds. Once they find a serviceable well, Ebenhack and Anderson plan to divert gas from it to a variety of bacteria-laden containers on the surface to determine which design works best.

Closer to home, the project could prove an economic boon for gas-rich pockets of central Michigan, southwestern Alabama, and the Southern Tier of New York state. Its findings could free up large reserves of gas in these areas, contributing substantially to local tax rolls.

"You need only look at states where large amounts of natural gas are already being harvested to see these resources' economic impact," says Ebenhack. "Wyoming has no income tax, and Texas and Louisiana have very low taxes."

An ideal well for this project would be one that is at least temporarily out of service. Interested well operators should contact Ebenhack at (585) 275-9209 or by e-mail at