Ice that burns? And a lot of it?

13 Nov 2012

The US Department of Energy and a number of energy companies are currently studying the extraction of so called methane hydrates which are basically a kind of methane trapped in a sort-of “ice “(discussed in this video).  Some scientists have estimated that there may be as much as 607 trillion cubic meters of this methane trapped in Alaskan permafrost and below cold deepwaters off the US coasts (pacific, atlantic and gulf of mexico). If accurate, this projection may mean that the United States has 6 times the natural gas previously thought available.

At present, there are two ways to extract the methane: (1) drilling to release the pressure, allowing the methane to rise up a well;  or (2)  warm the hydrate by pumping in steam or hot water.  The costs of heating these frozen structures are too high and they risk serious changes to the ecosystems.  The concept of drilling to relieve pressure is less expensive but also poses risks – particularly of destabilizing the seabed, causing huge underwater landslides with massive and potentially devastating tsunamis.  If methane hydrate is part of the supporting structure for the sea floor, removing it could cause a sort of “sink hole” of massive proportions.  Another concern is whether methane hydrate mining would affect global warming. Once methane is in the atmosphere, it becomes a greenhouse gas even more efficient than CO2 at trapping solar radiation.

As governments in Europe and here in the US focus on building a low-carbon economy, should we be developing a new type of fossil fuel?  Methane is cleaner than coal, but at present, there isn’t enough demand for methane which is why natural gas prices have stayed so low.  Also, methane isn’t as clean as solar or wind power – which have their own challenges.

The video above is interesting because it is premised on the idea of swapping one greenhouse gas, CO2, for the methane in the subsurface structures – in theory, the balance and stability would be as strong as before.  If this will work, the future might be a very interesting place.


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