Methane Is the Future

February 8, 2010 | 6 Comments

Its as safe a declaration as can be made, methane, the main part of natural gas is a major future fuel.

Case Item No. 1:

In the U.S. alone, the combination of horizontal drilling and reservoir fracturing services becoming more affordable has moved up the U.S. reserve by 35% in existing fields of 2007 to 2009.  Fracking and horizontal drilling technology is working at the source of the methane fuel system.  The U.S. oil and gas business is leading the way. John Curtis, a leader of the U.S. Potential Gas Committee says, “Our knowledge of the geological endowment of technically recoverable gas continues to improve with each assessment. Furthermore, new and advanced exploration, well drilling and completion technologies are allowing us increasingly better access to domestic gas resources – especially ‘unconventional’ gas – which, not all that long ago, were considered impractical or uneconomical to pursue.”

Just five years ago the U.S. was planning for importing natural gas. But now it’s expected that the U.S. will become an exporter.  Investments in Russia and Qatar have come up without markets for now.  As the U.S. industry gathers experience, the estimates are sure to rise in the coming years.  Today the independent estimates have over 90 years of supply on hand and as more reservoirs are discovered the reserves will climb.

Most of the gains come from ‘shale’ deposits. Stephen Holditch, professor of petroleum geology at Texas A&M University is being quoted that transferring the technology currently used in the United States would increase worldwide available gas reserves nine times.  Based on the American experience, Holditch estimates total world shale reserves as being more than 16,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf). Annual gas consumption of the developed economies is currently around 50 tcf. 50 into 16,000 is 320 years.  Holditch suggests there are reserves of some 500 tcf in Western Europe, 2,500 tcf in the Middle East and 3,500 tcf in China.

Case Item No. 2:

Naturally occurring methane hydrate may represent an enormous source of methane, the main component of natural gas, and should ultimately augment conventional natural gas supplies.  The National Research Council has just released the prepublication pdfs (chapters are separate downloads) of their report on their site.  With several commercial challenges before production, the technical challenges are now seen in the report as surmountable.  Methane hydrates look practical, and while costly to start, the production costs can be expected to lower over time.

Methane hydrate is a frozen solution of water and methane.  It’s been found from as far south as beyond the U.S. Gulf of Mexico to the equator to the Alaskan North Slope around the Arctic Ocean.  The methane hydrates are expected to occur in the continental shelves across the planet and on shore at or near permafrost areas.  Methane hydrate reserves aren’t ‘credible’ yet; the rules of assessment are still in debate.  The known reserves are substantial and extrapolation yields huge numbers.

The key pages of the National Academy’s Methane Report start at page 18 and run to page 48 with 6 pages of references.  Like all academic reports, the materials and sources are likely dated, but one can fairly project that the research in industry isn’t so far advanced as often seen in other fields.  This is in part because the industry has carefully avoided methane hydrate and the methane hydrates are found in a vast array of structures.  The water is frozen and can be supportive of the surface.  The methane distribution appears in at least two forms, one where free gas enters and inhabits a reservoir and second where hydrates are formed from gas dissolved into the water.  The State of the Science section is fascinating science reporting, well worth the download and the few minutes for reading.  The scientific papers noted in the report lack web links as the only inconvenience.

Methane as Located in the Methane Hydrate. Click image for more info.

So far there are three methods in research for extraction plus the novel ideas.  They are depressurization, thermal or warming, chemical and the novel.  Novel ideas are already in patenting proceedings across the world.

Case Item No. 3:

Just to ‘throw a little methane on the fire” if you will, Monday saw Dr. John Dunbar, associate professor of geology at Baylor, and his team receive additional U.S. Department of Energy grants funds to continue their successful research of a new methane hydrate search method that they’ve adapted for use on the seafloor to find a potentially massive sources of methane hydrate.  The team used an electrical resistivity method to acquire geophysical data at a site located roughly 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The researchers were able to provide a detailed map of where the methane hydrate is located and how deep it extends underneath the seafloor.

Located in an area called the Mississippi Canyon, the site is about 3,000-feet-wide, 3,000-feet under water, and has both active and dormant gas vents. Scientists have been researching the site since 2001, but have not been able to ascertain where the hydrate is located nor how much is there until now.

Professor Dunbar said, “The conventional search methods have been fairly effective in certain situations, but the resistivity method is a totally different approach. The benefit to the resistivity method is it shows the near-bottom in greater detail, and that is where the methane hydrate is located in this case. This research shows the resistivity method works and is effective.”

While the measurement of resistivity has been used for some time, the method has seldom been used at deep depths. The new application method showed researchers that the methane hydrate was located only in limited spots, usually occurring along faults under the sea floor. Dunbar said the method also showed the methane hydrate is not as abundant as previously thought at the Mississippi Canyon site.

Dunbar and his team dragged a “sled” – a device with a nearly one-kilometer-long towed array – back and forth over the site, injecting the electrical current. Sediment containing methane hydrate within its pores showed higher resistivity, compared to sediment containing salt water. While the measurement of resistivity has been used for some time, the method has seldom been used at deep depths.  With the new funds Dunbar and his team will reconfigure the towed array and shorten the length of it to about 1,500 feet. They also will cluster sensors around certain areas on the array, which will give researchers a clearer picture of how deep the methane hydrate extends and will allow them to create a three-dimensional picture of the underwater site.

U.S Geological Survey estimates of methane hydrate is now at 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  At just 1% recoverable, that more than doubles the U.S. natural gas reserve.  Extrapolated worldwide would have a far larger effect.

Just three items make a substantial case.  The CH4 methane molecule is abundant and can also be made biologically and chemically.  It’s a great way to use hydrogen rich carbon from fuels cells to heavy equipment.


6 Comments so far

  1. John Cossham on February 14, 2010 12:12 PM

    When you burn methane (a fossil fuel) you release CO2, adding to climate change.
    If you disturb methane hydrates and don’t capture them, the methane enters the atmosphere and is 23 times as powerful as a greenhouse gas as CO2.
    Increasing temperatures are changing ocean temperature gradients, and methane hydrates are already beginning to destabilise and bubble up into the air. In this respect, the more we can capture and convert to CO2 the better, but for me, I would prefer we invested all our time and energy into researching and building sources of energy which don’t emit greenhouse gases during their operation.
    I for one would prefer that our future energy sources are not methane, coal and oil, but are solar, wind, wave, tidal, biomass… and before all that, energy conservation, insulation and drastically reducing our use of finite energy and materials.
    (I do quite like anaerobic digesters though, the only ‘sustainable’ source of methane)
    John ‘Compost’ Cossham, York, UK

  2. Magnetic Materials Geek on February 20, 2010 12:34 AM

    […] Methane Is the Future […]

  3. Joseph C. Sweeney on April 5, 2010 1:21 PM

    Gas Hydrates Research is one of several R&D programs sponsored by the US COngress for years. Finally, one of the many funded demonstration sites has proven the ability to recover and reclaim Methane from its frozen form on a commercial scale. Now, how long and how much money will it take to enable industry to tap this vast resource to help in our quest to become energy independent?

    What other “new” energy technologies are at the same stage or even more advanced? Which have had major US Congressional investments? Isn’t it time that the public understands this topic from the funding and “promise” perspective rather than only whether global warming will be accelerated?

  4. Golf Balls on September 11, 2010 12:31 PM

    I wanted to give thanks for this great read!! I added to my bookmarks, cheers

  5. Exercise Balls on November 8, 2010 10:06 AM

    nice post. thanks.

  6. Kevin on March 29, 2017 7:03 AM

    The CH4 methane molecule is abundant and can also be made biologically and chemically. It’s a great way to use hydrogen rich carbon from fuels cells to heavy equipment.

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