Generation of secondary biogenic methane in coal beds is likely controlled by a combination of factors such as the bioavailability of coal carbon, the presence of a microbial community to convert coal carbon to methane, and an environment supporting microbial growth and methanogenesis. A set of treatments and controls was developed to bioassay the bioavailability of coal for conversion to methane under defined laboratory conditions. Treatments included adding a well-characterized consortium of bacteria and methanogens (enriched from modern wetland sediments) and providing conditions to support endemic microbial activity. The contribution of desorbed methane in the bioassays was determined in treatments with bromoethane sulfonic acid, an inhibitor of microbial methanogenesis. The bioassay compared 16 subbituminous coal samples collected from beds in Texas (TX), Wyoming (WY), and Alaska (AK), and two bituminous coal samples from Pennsylvania (PA). New biogenic methane was observed in several samples of subbituminous coal with the microbial consortium added, but endemic activity was less commonly observed. The highest methane generation [80 µmol methane/g coal (56 scf/ton or 1.75 cm3/g)] was from a south TX coal sample that was collected from a non-gas-producing well. Subbituminous coals from the Powder River Basin, WY and North Slope Borough, AK contained more sorbed (original) methane than the TX coal sample and generated 0–23 µmol/g (up to 16 scf/ton or 0.5 cm3/g) new biogenic methane in the bioassay. Standard indicators of thermal maturity such as burial depth, nitrogen content, and calorific value did not explain differences in biogenic methane among subbituminous coal samples. No original methane was observed in two bituminous samples from PA, nor was any new methane generated in bioassays of these samples. The bioassay offers a new tool for assessing the potential of coal for biogenic methane generation, and provides a platform for studying the mechanisms involved in this economically important activity.
Additional publication details
Bioassay for estimating the biogenic methane-generating potential of coal samples