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Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan unveiled a four-year project to study how microbes in oil and gas pipelines cause corrosion. Credit: CSPC, Cary Penny Credit: CSPC, Capphotographic

The federal government is funding research to understand how microbes in oil and gas pipelines cause corrosion, which can cost the energy sector billions of dollars a year and increase the risk of a damaging leak.

A $7.8-million grant through Genome Canada, an organization created and funded by Ottawa, will allow four Canadian universities to collaborate on the research study, which could have uses beyond the oil and gas sector.

The corrosion of steel infrastructure costs the oil industry an estimated $3-billion to $7-billion a year, at least 20 per cent of which may be the result of microbial activity.

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Related: U of A plan to track deadly deer epidemic wins Genome Canada funding

"This is a piece of the puzzle that's there to help our infrastructure, to maintain it appropriately and potentially reduce the number of failures that occur," said John Wolodko, one of the project leads and an associate professor from the University of Alberta.

The study will also include researchers from the University of Calgary, Memorial University in St. John's and Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan unveiled the four-year project in an announcement Thursday in Montreal.

The integrity of pipelines has become central to the continuing debate over pipeline proposals, such as the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and the Vancouver region, and Line 3 from Alberta into the United States – both of which received federal approval last week.

The idea for the Genome Canada study came from energy companies, which are seeking to minimize the need for maintenance and repairs by improving pipeline integrity, Dr. Wolodko said.

"They don't want to see failures happening. They don't want to spend money on replacing systems all the time. It's a cost that trickles down to the consumer," he said.

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Microbes are tiny organisms, including bacteria, found in water that are introduced into pipelines when crude oil mixed with water is extracted from wells. Even after refinement, very small percentages of microbe-containing water are still present in pipelines.

While the research is being driven by interest from the energy sector, Dr. Wolodko said there could be implications beyond oil and gas pipelines. Microbial corrosion attacks infrastructure such as bridges, as well as tanks and vessels. The research could also be relevant to water-treatment and waste-management systems, which also use pipelines.

"Every community in the world has some sort of system that takes water in its natural form and we have to eliminate natural pathogens and microbes in these systems," Dr. Wolodko said. "Any time you handle water, there is a potential for having the formation of biofilms and potential for microbial corrosion."

Dr. Wolodko compared understanding the presence of microbes in pipeline systems with research about microbial activity in the human body. "There's tens of thousands of different bugs in your stomach and we are now just slowly learning how these different populations and different types of bugs contribute to human health. It's a very complex problem. The same thing happens effectively in pipeline systems."

The research will begin in January and the first step will involve collecting samples of biofilm sludge provided by companies in the energy sector.

The genomic attributes of the samples will then be analyzed to further understand how different microbial populations might be interacting with each other to produce corrosion.

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Ms. Duncan, the science minister, also announced funding for research into eliminating chronic wasting disease in deer and breeding trees more more resilient to weather conditions.

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