Is Methane Hydrate the Energy Source of the Future?

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NAGAKUTE, JAPAN: Attendant of Japan's Gas Pavilion introduces an experiment of the 'burning ice,' methane hydrate, as a potential future source of energy during a press preview for the 2005 World Exposition in Nagakute, Aichi prefecture, 19 March 2005. The 185-day world expo will officially open March 25. AFP PHOTO/Kazuhiro NOGI
National Journal
Clare Foran
Dec. 24, 2013, midnight

Shale has the spot­light for now. But there’s an­oth­er, less­er-known sub­stance with the po­ten­tial to yield even great­er quant­it­ies of nat­ur­al gas: meth­ane hy­drate.

Hy­drates con­sist of a lat­tice-like struc­ture of frozen wa­ter mo­lecules and meth­ane. On the sur­face, they look like an or­din­ary block of ice. But when you hold a match to them, they burn — a visu­al cue sig­nal­ing meth­ane re­lease.

“A lot of geoscient­ists are fas­cin­ated by hy­drates be­cause of how odd it is that you can take meth­ane gas and add wa­ter and have it res­ult in something with such a con­cen­trated store of en­ergy,” said Peter Flem­ings, a mem­ber of the En­ergy De­part­ment’s meth­ane hy­drate ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee and pro­fess­or at the de­part­ment of geo­lo­gic­al sci­ences at the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin).

Hy­drates form when meth­ane and wa­ter com­bine un­der cold tem­per­at­ures in a re­l­at­ively high-pres­sure en­vir­on­ment and are com­monly found in arc­tic re­gions or in shal­low sed­i­ments be­low re­l­at­ively deep wa­ter along the out­er con­tin­ent­al shelf.

The En­ergy In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion es­tim­ates that hy­drates con­tain more car­bon than every fossil fuel avail­able on Earth com­bined. EIA also re­ports that these ice-like struc­tures could hold any­where from 10,000 tril­lion to more than 100,000 tril­lion cu­bic feet of nat­ur­al gas. By way of com­par­is­on, the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which acts as the in­de­pend­ent stat­ist­ic­al arm of the En­ergy De­part­ment, said in 2013 that there are just over 7,000 tril­lion cu­bic feet of tech­nic­ally re­cov­er­able shale gas de­pos­its throughout the world.

All this po­ten­tial isn’t lost on the ad­min­is­tra­tion. DOE has been con­duct­ing re­search in­to meth­ane hy­drates on and off since the 1980s and re­cently re-upped its com­mit­ment to un­der­stand­ing the sub­stance with an an­nounce­ment last month that it plans to pour close to $5 mil­lion in­to fund­ing for re­search pro­jects ex­plor­ing the po­ten­tial en­ergy source and how it could be ex­trac­ted.

“We know that meth­ane hy­drates hold vast po­ten­tial as a fu­ture en­ergy re­source,” said Ray Boswell, the pro­gram man­ager on meth­ane hy­drates for the de­part­ment’s Na­tion­al En­ergy Tech­no­logy Lab, said. “We’ve got­ten past the ques­tion of does this sub­stance really ex­ist and is it avail­able, and now we’re really work­ing to fig­ure out how much of it is in a con­di­tion to where we can real­ist­ic­ally con­sider it a part of our fu­ture en­ergy re­serve, and we’re work­ing to­wards that.”

When asked if meth­ane hy­drates stand to play a role in the pres­id­ent’s all-of-the-above en­ergy strategy, Boswell replied: “Yes, ab­so­lutely.”

There are risks in­her­ent in the ex­trac­tion of nat­ur­al gas from hy­drates, however.

Since hy­drates are typ­ic­ally found in shal­low­er re­gions than shale gas de­pos­its, one con­cern is that drilling in­to the sub­stance could trig­ger ground sur­face col­lapse.

“If you drill a hole five feet down and re­move a large amount of ma­ter­i­al, there are more odds of the ground cav­ing in than you would have if you drill 10,000 feet down,” Flem­ings said.

An­oth­er fre­quently cited con­cern is that meth­ane, a power­ful green­house gas, could leak out dur­ing ex­trac­tion.

Boswell in­sists, however, that the po­ten­tial for un­in­ten­ded meth­ane gas re­lease is no high­er with meth­ane hy­drates than with shale rock form­a­tions.

“That’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion,” he com­men­ted. “But the risks as­so­ci­ated with hy­drates are very sim­il­ar to the risks that are dealt with and man­aged every day by the oil and gas in­dustry in the pro­cess of drilling for nat­ur­al gas in shale.”

Don’t ex­pect nat­ur­al gas pro­duc­tion from hy­drates to get off the ground in the U.S. any­time soon, however. As long as shale gas re­mains so read­ily avail­able, there is no real in­cent­ive to com­mer­cial­ize the tech­no­logy.

“At the end of the day, pro­du­cing nat­ur­al gas from hy­drates is still much more ex­pens­ive than shale gas or oth­er con­ven­tion­al meth­ods,” Flem­ings said.

But the costs in­curred to ex­tract shale gas have dropped dra­mat­ic­ally over the past dec­ade, and so, too, could the price of tech­no­logy needed to grab gas from meth­ane hy­drates. If that day comes, a tid­al wave of fossil fuels will flood the Amer­ic­an en­ergy land­scape.

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