Scientists and engineers at Cardiff University are investigating bacteria from deep sediments which despite high pressures (greater than 1,000 atmospheres), gradually increasing temperatures (from an icy 2°C to over 100°C), great depth (several kilometres) and age (many millions of years) may contain most of the bacteria on Earth.
Some of these bacteria produce methane that accumulates in "gas hydrates" ?a super concentrated methane ice that contains more carbon than all conventional fossil fuels and, therefore, a potentially enormous energy source. However, we know little about gas hydrates as they melt during recovery due to the fall in pressure.
Professor R. John Parkes, of the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences at Cardiff University, is leading part of a major European Union project, called HYACINTH which is developing systems to recover gas hydrates and bacteria under high pressure.
He has turned to experts in the University's Manufacturing Engineering Centre to help create a system that would enable his team to grow, isolate and study these ancient bacteria in the laboratory.
"DNA analysis of deep sediments has shown diverse bacterial populations, including major new types, but we have been unable to culture them and this might be because we have not been able to keep them at the very high pressures which they need to survive," said Professor Parkes.
The Manufacturing Engineering Centre in the School of Engineering has helped design and produce a high-pressure system, which is the first of its kind in the world.
Using titanium and stainless steel alloys, and sapphire windows, the Centre's experts have built an isolation system, as well as a special cutting chamber to enable scientists to take precise