How oil/gas pipelines make a nice niche for iron-eating bacteria


SF Chronicle: Much ado about microbiologically influenced corrosion and natural gas lines
[Via Knight Science Journalism Tracker]

A story of of generally good quality catches the eye in the San Francisco Chronicle this morning – enterprising, pretty thorough if uncertain in conclusion – but that brushes only lightly against its main angle: iron-eating bugs and their ilk.

Jaxon Van Derbeken has it under a banner p. 1 head: Bacteria a culprit in explosion? The writer is on the newspaper’s large team that reported the explosion of a gas pipeline in the nearby city of San Bruno last month, and remains hard at work on the aftermath. After a mention of microbiologically influenced corrosion in recent coverage, Van Berkeen bores in here. The hed has a question mark for a reason. It says here there is no direct evidence this is why a 30-inch, entrenched gas pipeline blew out and incinerated a neighborhood. But it’s on the list of plausibilities.

But what is the process, shortened to MIC in the article and in technical literature alike? We learn here only that bacteria, given pooled water in such pipes, can form a biofilm. The slimy outer layer provides a cozy den while the buggers “release gases that attack the pipe wall,” a source tells him. Got it? Most of the story is about how to detect such infestations of pipelines, to clean them out, and to protect against recurrence – and about what the utility company did or didn’t do to stay on top of the pipe’s integrity.


This is one reason biology is such an important thing to know. These bacteria get going in the very unusual environmental niche inside a pipe. They can perhaps cause the pipes to fail.

And we can not grow them in the lab, having to rely on DNA sequencing to even know they are there. Biocorrosion sounds like something from the Andromeda Strain.

It is something to worry about as similar corrosion has been seen inside fire sprinklers.