Flaring is a practice widely used by energy producers in which excess natural gas is ignited. This occurs because producers do not have the infrastructure to handle the amount of gas rushing out of gas wells and shale formations. Flaring is a serious issue because it leads to increased methane and carbon dioxide emissions and the driving up of energy prices, not to mention the millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas being lost annually. Many solutions are available to combat the issue, including installing equipment to deal with the inflow of natural gas or building regional infrastructure such as pipelines to capture the excess gas, but energy producers do not have the monetary incentive to adopt these solutions.
The solution, it turns out, might come from an unlikely source: biotechnology. The solution centers on certain microbes that have been present on the earth for billions of years. These microbes, called methanogens, are able to use methane to produce energy. Biotechnology companies, such as Intrexon, are trying to harness this capacity and use it to produce valuable chemicals from methane, such as isobutanol and farnesene, which are used in a variety of products such as fuels, cosmetics, and polymers. This capacity may be mutually beneficial to both biotechnology companies and energy producers. Commercializing a methanogen to produce these chemicals would result in high profits to both energy producers, who would provide their excess natural gas (the excess currently being flared and wasted), and to biotechnology companies. Both companies could share in the gains from the production of these chemicals with the excess natural gas. This is a win-win scenario, in which society as a whole benefits as well, since methane and carbon dioxide that would otherwise find their way into the atmosphere are being productively put to use.
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