Methane Hydrate, Our Long-Term Energy Solution

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Methane Hydrate, Our Long-Term Energy Solution

In the 1970s, Russian scientists first reported finding a miraculous form of ice in the Black Sea that burned with an intense orange flame. Then, in the 1980s, researchers from other countries began drilling into the ocean and started finding the magic ice everywhere they looked.

When they analyzed it, they found that it was methane hydrate, a pure white crystalline lattice of water ice that has methane molecules trapped in it. Each methane molecule has six water molecules holding it in place. And, a single unit of methane hydrate, when heated and depressurized, releases 160 times its volume in natural gas.

Methane hydrate is formed under great pressure, at temperatures near freezing, beneath the ocean floor as one tectonic plate is forced under another. It has now been found virtually everywhere anyone has bothered to drill deep enough beneath the continental shelf.

Methane burns much cleaner than coal or oil, and is therefore preferable as a fuel. Methane, or natural gas, is composed of one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms. The total amount of energy trapped in methane hydrate is believed to far exceed all the energy stored in the conventional natural gas, oil, and coal deposits now known to exist in the world. And, new reserves of methane hydrate are now being found almost weekly.

So it’s quite possible that this discovery holds the key to the world’s energy future. Deposits off the coast of the U.S. alone are so big that if just 1 percent could be recovered, it would double our natural gas reserves, according to a report in the US Fed News.1 And, according to an article published earlier this year in the Nikkei Report,2 a team of researchers from the University of Tokyo recently found a huge, and much shallower, deposit of methane hydrate off the coast of Japan.

Computer simulations indicate that thermal recovery methods, such as the use of hot water or steam flooding, could make hydrates a technically recoverable resource. Alternatively, methods that dissociate the gas by reducing the reservoir pressure may be possible. Chemical injection to decrease the stability of the hydrate lattice could be another approach.

Japan has been at the forefront of the effort to mine methane hydrate, having established a comprehensive program of test drilling in the mid-‘90s, according to The Oil and Gas Journal.3 In 2004 alone, the Japanese drilled 16 new methane hydrate wells. According to Natural Gas Week,4 Russia and India also have methane hydrate projects underway...

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