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Natural wonder from the forest The fungus which helps in crude oil production

The Nature Our Prototype

Learning from nature is worthwhile and it is often how researchers develop solutions response to technical challenges. One well-known example is the lotus effect, where water and dirt are repelled on certain surfaces - a phenomenon that can be observed on the leaves of lotus flowers and is today exploited, for instance, in the production of washbasins.


Wintershall has understood that you can make use of nature for technical innovations. The company is currently developing an environmentally friendly technology that could significantly raise the recovery rate of reservoirs - and nature is playing the key role in this process.

Dead tree – new life

Wintershall is cooperating with BASF on what is currently its largest research project - and at its heart is a simple fungus: Schizophyllum commune.

The fungus with the common name 'Split Gill' can be found on dead wood in coniferous and deciduous forests all over the world and seeks out the sunniest and driest places. It essentially feeds off oxygen and various carbon sources, such as sugar. As it grows, it generates a biopolymer - a biological thickening agent it needs for developing, amongst other things, its own cell walls.

Producing more crude oil with Schizophyllan

The water can force more oil out of the reservoir because it can no longer flow past the valuable natural resource so easily. This technique can raise the recovery rate from a reservoir significantly.

What’s more, it does so in an environmentally friendly way, since the biopolymer is fully biodegradable. But how is crude oil recovered and how does Schizophyllan work in the reservoir exactly? 


Burkhard Ernst General Project Manager Wintershall

Managing a project which centers on a fungus? This job is perfect for Burkhard Ernst.

He has had a close affinity with nature since childhood. After all, the General Project Manager for the fungus project grew up on a farm. He studied chemical engineering and obtained a doctorate in biological engineering. Originally from Lower Saxony, Ernst worked for BASF for seven years, five of which he spent researching and developing biotechnological processes. Since the summer of 2013, the experienced project manager has had overall responsibility for Wintershall's largest research project. As Ernst explains, being the one who pulls all the strings is no easy task but it is a lot of fun:

I became an engineer in order to put thoughts and plans into practice. And I can do exactly that here.

Burkhardt Ernst
General Project Manager Wintershall

There is no sea of oil

It is very difficult getting this important and valuable natural resource out of the ground - oil is not located in underground seas which can be pumped dry, but usually enclosed in porous rocks, such as sandstone or limestone, together with salt water. 
Furthermore, the oil-containing rock is sealed by impermeable layers such as shale or salt. The oil has to be driven out of the rock pores to a well and then to surface.

Primary production

In the first phase, termed primary production, the oil virtually flows to the surface by itself as a result of the natural pressure of the reservoir. However, only around 10 percent are recovered this way.

Depending on the reservoir, a further five to ten percent can be extracted using traditional pumping technology, such as the familiar 'nodding donkeys'.

Secondary production

The secondary phase of production is when the water is pressed into the reservoir through injection wells in the oil field to maintain the reservoir's pressure as it declines.

In this way, a further ten to 20 percent of the oil can be extracted. Some 30 to 40 percent is usually the maximum. The rest remains in the rock pores.

Enhanced oil recovery (EOR)

To extract more oil, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) methods are used in the tertiary stage.

Thanks to technologies like polymer flooding, the recovery rate can be increased to up to 50 percent.

Schizophyllan in use The idea

The crude oil in many reservoirs is often much more viscous than water. This means that water, being less thick, can flow through the rock pores far more easily than oil can. Therefore, instead of driving the oil in front of the water as actually desired, over time, the water finds ways to squeeze its way past the oil droplets and so sweeps less and less oil along with it.

One way of increasing the amount of oil is to reduce the mobility of water in relation to the mobility of oil. This is done by mixing water with a polymer like Schizophyllan whereby the water becomes thicker and presses more oil out of the rock pores as its makes its way through to the reservoir. Due to Schizophyllan, the recovery rate may be increased in future (depending on the reservoir) from around 35 to 45 percent, representing a huge advance.

How is Schizophyllan produced?

There are various types of polymers. With synthetic polymers, the molecule chains are created in chemical reactors. In contrast, a biopolymer is created in a natural biological process - like when brewing beer.

In the case of Schizophyllan, the fungus Schizophyllum commune produces the molecule chains itself. The gel-like substance Schizophyllan is made up of a sequence of about 25,000 sugar components.

In order for it to be used for oil production, BASF exclusively makes the thickening agent in a complex process on behalf of Wintershall. The fungus and a sugar solution are stirred in a fermenter for several days and aerated with oxygen.

The fungus produces the biopolymer in this process. The Schizophyllan is then separated completely from the fungus and cleansed in several stages. The biopolymer is then used in the oil field.

Eco-friendly? Of course!

Schizophyllan is a real boon in oil production: As the product is heat-resistant and salt-tolerant, it still works effectively in reservoirs with high temperatures and salt concentrations - this is a great advantage given that these conditions are found within numerous oil reservoirs across the world.

Equally as important is the fact that Schizophyllan is extremely eco-friendly. That is because the biopolymer is fully biodegradable - a true natural product.

The benefits of the fungus have long been recognized in other parts of the world: Schizophyllan is used in South America as a dietary supplement and medicinally in Asia to strengthen the immune system.

Due to its outstanding environmental compatibility, this biological product can even be used in oil production in highly sensitive ecosystems such as the ocean. This provides a particular advantage in countries like Norway, for example.

Optimal environment

Keeping bacteria away from the polymer is also a challenge in actual production. To provide the biopolymer in the desired quantity and quality, the production process must run smoothly and without any disruption from foreign organisms. To ensure quality, the polymer which is produced at BASF in Ludwigshafen is subject to hygiene standards matching,and sometimes in excess, of those used within the food industry.


Florian Lehr Research Project Manager BASF

Florian Lehr has always tried to see the "bigger picture". The chemical and biological engineer can now focus on doing just that. As the coordinator for everything connected with the new Wintershall technology in Ludwigshafen, he needs to keep track of things at all times.

Lehr has worked for BASF since 2011 and has been involved with the fungus from the very beginning. His job was to make the fermentation procedure – the central part of the production process – more efficient. Florian Lehr has been in charge of research and development for all production processes since 2013. Lehr explains what makes his work so exciting: "From molecular biologists to process engineers, there are people from all fields in my team."

I'm a sort of interpreter and ensure that the specialists from the various disciplines understand each other.

Florian Lehr
Research Project Manager BASF

Field test

After several years of research in the BASF labs, since December 2012 Wintershall has been testing the biopolymer in an oil field for the first time in order to verify whether it is suitable for enhanced oil recovery.

The Bockstedt crude oil field in the north German rural district of Diepholz was chosen for this field test.  

There is a very long tradition of oil production in Bockstedt and the neighboring Aldorf and Düste oil fields. Domestic crude oil has been recovered there since the 1950’s, and the millionth ton of crude was produced in the region back in 1958. One year later the work was expanded to include gas production with the discovery of the gas reserves in Eydelstedt.

Premiere Wintershall is testing Schizophyllan in the field

The principle of the first field test in Bockstedt is simple: the biopolymer is mixed with production water and pumped into the oil formation with the aim of increasing the oil production rate. The technical processes behind it, on the other hand, are extremely complex. Further tests are planned both in Germany and abroad.

Test in one well

After two years of continuous injection, Schizophyllan is now being injected into the borehole in short, successive tests. This means the biopolymer solution is pumped into one single well over a short period of time of just a few days, and then produced back from the same well. This method is called Huff and Puff. It aims to test the properties and behavioral patterns of the biopolymer, which could only be partially ascertained with the previous injection method.


The mixture of reservoir water and Schizophyllan is expected to be tested in the Bockstedt oil field until 2017. Once the short Huff and Puff tests have been completed, a continuous injection of the biopolymer solution is planned again.

The transport

Special tank containers transport the biopolymer from the production plant in Ludwigshafen to Bockstedt.

The challenge

Deep under the surface the experts are confronted with various challenges: firstly, the biopolymer has to be transported several thousand meters under the surface undamaged. When it gets there it is met by extremely high temperatures which it has to be able to withstand. Furthermore, the deep layers of the earth have a very high salt content. Crude oil production with polymers is nothing new in itself, but many synthetic polymers are not biologically degradable, which means they cannot be used in some places, for example the Norwegian North Sea.

Our solution

Schizophyllan has excellent properties for use in oil production. For instance, it is not deterred by high heat or too much salt in the reservoir. Yet there are a few challenges that also have to be overcome with this product: Being a biological product and biodegradable, Schizophyllan is prone to attack by bacteria. As protection against them, a preservative also used in papermaking and in conditioning cooling and warm water is added to it. It is consumed completely while the biopolymer/water mixture flows through the porous rock in the oil reservoir.

The biopolymer in 3D

The secret is the molecular structure: the stability of the biopolymer Schizophyllan is impressively shown in our 3D-model which can be "touched" and twisted and therefore be seen from all sides with your mouse. With anaglyph spectacles You can experience the Schizophyllan-molecule in a more exciting way.


Alexander Steigerwald Field Test Manager, Wintershall Germany

Alexander Steigerwald is Operations Manager for Wintershall's oil and gas production activities in Northern Germany.

In this capacity, he is overseeing the first practical test – a field test in Bockstedt – where the new technology has been in use for the first time in an oil field since December 2012.

The mining engineer has spent his entire career in the oil and gas industry.

Alexander Steigerwald has worked for Wintershall for seven years, four of which he spent braving the Siberian cold for the Achimgaz joint project in Novy Urengoy. Steigerwald admits that the field test stands out above all his other tasks in Barnstorf, Lower Saxony:

Hopes and expectations are great – both here and abroad. After all, we are the first people to get this far with a technology of this type.

Alexander Steigerwald
Field Test Manager, Wintershall Germany

Facts & Figures

Questions to the experts The project team of Schizophyllan answers your questions:

Schizophyllan is produced by a fungus named Schizophyllum commune. When it consumes oxygen and sugar, the fungus generates a 100% biological thickening agent - the biopolymer Schizophyllan.

Florian Lehr
Research Project Manager BASF

BASF exclusively produces the thickening agent in a complex process on behalf of Wintershall. The fungus and sugar solution are first added to the fermenter, a vessel which is similar to the tanks used when brewing beer.

In this case, however, the aim is not for the fungus to ferment the sugar solution to produce alcohol. The two ingredients are stirred in the fermenter for several days with the addition of oxygen. The fungus produces the polymer in the process. The resulting mixture is then filtered in a number of steps in order to separate the Schizophyllan from the fungus.

When the biopolymer is used in the field test, it therefore no longer contains the fungus.

Tank trucks from Lanfer Logistik, specially modified for this purpose, transport the biopolymer from the production plant in Ludwigshafen to Bockstedt and store it at the operating station. Three of these trucks are usually on site.

Just under 1 percent schizophyllan is contained in the stock solution which is delivered to Bockstedt.

Florian Lehr
Research Project Manager BASF

Back in the 1980s, Wintershall employees discovered that the fungus produces a biopolymer which is ideal to improve oil production (enhanced oil recovery - EOR).

Burkhard Ernst
General Project Manager Wintershall

Then, a few years ago the company decided to bring the project to life. At the same time the colleagues knew that a strong partner is needed to get this technology ready for the market. And what could possibly make more sense than bringing our parent company, BASF, on board? Wintershall and BASF have jointly conducted extensive research on the fungus and the polymer for many years. Since December 2012, Schizophyllan is being tested for the first time in an oil field.

Oil production with Schizophyllan is absolutely eco-friendly.

Burkhard Ernst
General Project Manager Wintershall

For example, the field test with the biodegradable polymer proved to have no impact on drinking water. Schizophyllan is applied at a depth of 1,300 meters, where the oil is located along with the salt water in the rock pores. Neither the polymer, nor the oil, will come into contact with drinking water.

How does this work?
The geological layer holding the crude oil and salt water is separated from our drinking water by many impermeable rock layers that have existed for millions of years.Among other things, they consist of shale or anhydride, which is related to gypsum. Therefore, asubstance that is introduced at a depth of 1,300 m cannot reach a far higher level where drinking water is located - up to 50 meters below groundwater in the case of Bockstedt. The distance between the drinking water and the crude oil reservoir is 1,250 meters - over one kilometer.

The mixture of oil, production water and biopolymer that is extracted ...

Alexander Steigerwald
Field Test Manager, Wintershall Germany

... is transported to Wintershall's nearby Barnstorf location, where the components are separated from each other and processed in the so-called separator.

Do you have any more questions on Schizophyllan, EOR techniques or polymer flooding? Contact us: biopolymer[at]