Methane hydrate new energy source

No Comments » December 28th, 2006 posted by // Categories: Energy Development Project



New Energy Source – Methane Hydrates Deep Within the
Earth

By David Adam

04 April, 2005
The Guardian

More than a mile below the choppy Gulf of Mexico waters lies a vast, untapped
source of energy. Locked in mysterious crystals, the sediment beneath the seabed
holds enough natural gas to fuel America’s energy-guzzling society for decades,
or to bring about sufficient climate change to melt the planet’s glaciers and
cause catastrophic flooding, depending on whom you talk to.

No prizes for guessing the US government’s preferred line. This week it will
dispatch a drilling vessel to the region, on a mission to bring this virtually
inexhaustible new supply of fossil fuel to power stations within a decade.

The ship will hunt for methane hydrates, a weird combination of gas and water
produced in the crushing pressures deep within the earth – literally, ice that
burns.

The stakes could not be higher: scientists reckon there could be more valuable
carbon fuel stored in the vast methane hydrate deposits scattered under the
world’s seabed and Arctic permafrost than in all of the known reserves of coal,
oil and gas put together.

“The amount of energy there is just too big to ignore,” said Bahman Tohidi, head
of the centre for gas hydrate research at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
“It’s not easy, but it’s not something we can say we can’t do so let’s forget
about it.”

Britain may miss out on any future methane hydrate boom – the North Sea is too
shallow and no deposits have been found in the deeper waters further north – but
other countries have recognised their potential. Japan, India and Korea, as well
as the United States, are investing millions of pounds in hydrate research.

Ray Boswell, who heads the hydrate programme at the US department of energy’s
national energy technology laboratory, said the US was determined to be the
first to mine the resource.

“Commercially viable production is definitely realistic within a decade. The
world is investing in hydrates, and one reason for us to do this is to maintain
our leadership position in this emerging technology.”

Its new project will see the drilling vessel Uncle John spend about a month in
the Gulf of Mexico, where it will bore down to two of the largest expected
methane hydrate deposits in the region. Scientists on the ship will collect
samples for experiments to see how the methane might be freed and transported to
the surface.

This is harder than it sounds. In some deposits the crystals occur in thick
layers, in others they are found as smaller nuggets. Puncture one hydrate
reservoir and the giant release of gas can disrupt drilling, pierce another and
getting the methane out is like sucking porridge through a straw.

This unpredictable nature means energy companies traditionally view hydrates as
a nuisance. This gives them a joint interest with the US government as both
sides want to know where the crystals are – one to avoid them and the other to
exploit them.

Mr Boswell said: “We have a marriage of near-term industry interests and
longer-term government interests. If they develop the ability to detect hydrates
for the purpose of avoiding them, that’s useful for people who want to do the
exact same thing for the purpose of finding them.”

Devinder Mahajan, a chemist at the US department of energy’s laboratory in
Brookhaven, is looking for ways to encourage subsea hydrate deposits to release
their methane. He has developed a pressurised tank that allows scientists to
study hydrate formation. “You fill the vessel with water and sediment, put in
methane gas and cool it down under high pressure. After a few hours, the
hydrates form, you can actually see it. They look like ice, but they’re not,” he
said. “This is a very important issue, tied to our future national energy
security.”

Hydrates on land are easier to get at, and in 2003 a team of oil companies and
scientists from Canada, Japan, India, Germany and the US showed it was possible
to produce methane from the icy deposits below Canada’s Northwest Territories.
BP and the US government are carrying out similar experiments in Alaska.

Environmental groups oppose attempts to extract methane from hydrate reserves.

Roger Higman, a climate change campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: “The
Americans are desperately looking around trying to boost their fossil fuels
because they think the oil is going to run out or there’s going to be a
scarcity. The actual scarcity is in the space the atmosphere has for taking the
carbon dioxide that burning methane produces.”

He added: “We already have enough fossil fuel in the world that, if burnt, will
ruin the world’s climate. Rather than look for more, we need to keep the oil,
gas and coal we already know about underground and develop alternative sources
of energy, principally renewables.”

Paul Johnston, a scientist in the Greenpeace laboratory at Exeter University,
warned that disturbing hydrate deposits under the seabed was a risky strategy.

“There are legitimate concerns that attempts to tap into these reserves could
cause very widespread destabilisation of the seabed and damage to ecosystems,”
he said.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, he said, and
any released during production would make global warming worse.

Mr Boswell said methane was more environmentally friendly than oil and coal,
because it produced less carbon dioxide when burnt.

“The prudent approach is to address all the avenues for supplying future
energy,” he said. “People who say it has to be one or the other, I think, are
putting too many eggs in one basket.”

Guardian Unlimited

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