Monday March 23 saw 24 papers about natural gas hydrates, the frozen methane locked up in frozen deep cold water, at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting in Salt Lake City.

Known as gas hydrate, it is a frozen form of natural gas that can burst into flame at the touch of a match and show increasing promise as abundant, untapped sources of clean, sustainable energy. Those icy chunks could supplement traditional conventional natural gas sources that will become more expensive, perhaps in short supply and are being used to substitute for coal in electrical power generation and increasingly to fuel cars.

Ignited Gas Hydrate. Click image for more.

Ignited Gas Hydrate. Click image for more.

Science has known about gas hydrates for decades, but only recently the last decade has seen well-funded efforts to use them as an alternative energy source. Gas hydrates are also known as “clathrates,” that form when methane gas from the decomposition of organic material comes into contact with water at low temperature and high pressure. Those cold, high-pressure conditions exist deep below the oceans and underground on land in certain parts of the world, including the ocean floor and permafrost areas of the Arctic.

The volume that can actually be produced on an industrial scale depends on the ability of scientists to extract the methane from gas hydrate formations in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Scientists worldwide are now doing research on gas hydrates in order to understand how this strange material forms and how it might be extracted to supplement coal, oil, and traditional natural gas.

Last November, a team of USGS researchers announced a giant step toward the future. In a landmark study, the USGS scientists estimated that 85.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could potentially be extracted from gas hydrates in Alaska’s North Slope region alone, enough “to heat more than 100 million average homes for more than a decade.”

Study co-leaders Tim Collett, Ph.D., a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, and Ray Boswell, Ph.D. who manages the National Methane Hydrate R&D Program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W. Va. suggest that one of the more promising techniques for extracting methane from hydrates involves simply depressurizing the deposits, Boswell says another suggested method involves exchanging the methane molecules in the “clathrate” structure with carbon dioxide. Workers can, in theory, collect the gas using the same drilling technology used for conventional oil and gas drilling.

Scientists are particularly optimistic about the vast stores of gas hydrates located in Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. The Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000 has funded collaboration with universities and private companies, to investigate gas hydrates as an alternative energy source. With several millions dollars already spent, research is accelerating under the U.S. Department of Energy and USGS to better understand gas hydrate’s role in the natural environment and in climate change. One might hope most of the money is going to extraction research.

Tim Collett says, “Gas hydrates are totally doable, but when and where we will see them depends on need, motivation, and our supply of other energy resources. In the next five to ten years, the research potential of gas hydrates will be more fully realized.” Ray Boswell offers, “Once we have learned better how to find the most promising gas hydrate deposits, we will need to know how to produce it in a safe and commercially viable way. Chemistry will be a big part of understanding just how the hydrates will respond to various production methods.”

Locating the gas hydrate is an ongoing effort with only the north slope of Alaska having a study with decent data for estimates. The Gulf of Mexico also has vast reserves of methane locked up in gas hydrates and more is known to be off the east U.S. coast. Other countries are looking too, with Japan and India discovering huge stores of methane and are leading research with well-funded gas hydrate research programs.

The American Chemical Society press release about the gas hydrate presentations also includes:

  • E. Dendy Sloan, Ph.D., of the Colorado School of Mines, who provided an overview of this rapidly evolving field. He is the author over 200 publications, including the third edition of “Clathrate Hydrates of Natural Gases,” co-authored by Carolyn Koh.His presentation provides overview of gas hydrates for energy production and climate change where some scientists predict that natural gas hydrates will play a major role in both energy and climate change in the future.
  • Masanori Kurihara, Ph.D., of Japan Oil Engineering Co., Ltd., described Japan’s National Methane Hydrate Exploitation Program, including research on promising methane hydrate deposits in the Eastern Nankai Trough of offshore Japan.Japan has one of the world’s largest and most promising national gas hydrate research programs and is well on its way toward using these hydrates as an important fuel source.
  • Scott R. Dallimore, of Geological Survey of Canada, will provide an overview of the country’s contributions toward gas hydrate production.Canada has a huge reserve and likely the longest effort in research being involved in gas hydrates research since the 1970s and now plays a leading role in hydrate production technology.

The puzzle remains extracting the methane out from a very cold, wet and high-pressure zones both under water and deep underground. Its known in the oil and gas business that the potential is there, but the technology isn’t firmed up or understood in the economic costs to free the methane.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a price at which has hydrate resources become viable. The issue for consumers is what the price might be. The natural gas market is under pressure worldwide more so than U.S. consumers recognize with what U.S. consumers would regard as shockingly high prices. Major efforts are under way to liquefy natural gas and move it to locations where demand will support the costs to find, develop, liquefy, ship, re-gasify and transport to users. It’s an expensive series of steps, but in some parts of the world, simply necessary.

With those broad strokes of the world market in mind extracting methane from gas hydrates seems more important than a U.S. consumer might realize. But liquefying natural gas is coming to the U.S. market over the coming years, which is certain to bring more demand to the natural gas pricing structure.

More reserves – even gas hydrates is welcome – but producing them needs much more investment and innovation.


6 Comments so far

  1. JCSPILMAN on March 28, 2009 4:20 PM

    As I said in my earlier comments on Global Warming, the results of the Japanese/American test well drilling in Canada during 2008 produced commercial quantities of clean natural gas CH4 for over a week before being shut down. As a result the United Staates and Japan have signed a cooperative agreement to drill off the coast of Japan.

    The Japanese propriatary technique consists of placing an inline turbo pump at hydrate level and pumping water in and gas out of the same line. If CO2 were to be injected into the downstream water this would displace the CH4 molacule within the clathrate without disturbing the physical structure. A really amazing process with little chance of damage to the hydrate field!

    JCSpilman, P.E. (Ret.)

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