According to University of Texas researchers, trillions of cubic feet of methane are trapped under the Gulf of Mexico, frozen.
The U.S. Department of Energy gave Texas over $40 million to research this frozen gas – methane hydrate. As part of a four-year program, researchers will study methane hydrate and evaluate its potential as a new energy source. Combined with funds from other donors, the program has a total value of $58 million.
Dr. Peter Flemings, the program’s lead investigator and a UT geophysics professor, says methane hydrate is one of the most fascinating materials on the planet.
We sat down with Fleming to ask him about this frozen gas and research program:
Q: So why is it you find methane hydrate so fascinating?
A: It’s sort of amazing stuff! This material, which is water and methane, combines to form an ice-like substance from high pressure and temperature. This solid has a completely different property than the methane or the water individually. And it also has a high energy density.
Q: At the moment, I understand that producing energy from methane isn’t a feasible option. Is this program here to change that?
A: I’m going to break that into two answers:
- If you look at the prices of natural gas today, it’s extremely inexpensive [to produce]. It is extremely hard to imagine how we could economically produce these hydrates in the offshore. But then, some countries have no natural hydrocarbon resource; but they do have a significant hydrate resource. Some examples are India, South Korea or Japan. For these countries, energy security is very important – that they have access to some type of energy even if it’s not as cheap as what’s available on the open market.
- In the seventies, when we looked at shales, nobody thought we were going to ever produce gas or oil from them. Now, it’s a huge fraction of the energy that’s produced in the U.S. Maybe, 30 years from now, hydrates will provide a natural gas resource.
Q: Would this natural gas resource be sustainable?
A: My answer is a little bit careful – I think one of the remarkable things that has happened in the United States is that we’ve actually decreased our carbon footprint; and we’ve largely decreased it because natural gas has been replacing coal. So in that sense, methane is a much cleaner, healthier fuel than burning coal. Down the road, I think we’re going to have to do carbon sequestration or switch to other fuels; but these things take a long time – to come up with that technology. So, ‘We gotta get there,’ is the short answer.
Q: With ocean temperature rising, is there evidence these ice beds are melting and releasing methane into the environment?
A: People have argued that the warming ocean will lead to the dissociation of methane hydrate – meaning you take it from water and gas together, to just water and free gas. Then, that gas might enter in the atmosphere. Then, it could be a greenhouse gas.
Q: Then should we be concerned about methane ice’s rate of dissociation?
A: We don’t think, at this point, that we are seeing the melting of hydrates from the most recent human-induced climate change.
The reason for that is this thermal pulse hasn’t had the chance to get deep enough in the earth to melt the hydrates.
But I think what is clear is that one of the places where we really see the effects of climate change is up in the Arctic. You know the examples – that polar bears don’t have ice to sit on … In that environment, if you had hydrates buried near the surface, they could dissociate.
Q: I kind of imagined there was a sense of urgency behind the project, to find out what to do with this methane ice before it threatens the environment.
A: Keep in mind, particularly in the offshore realm in the areas we’ll be drilling, that methane hydrate is on the order of 2,000 to 3,000 feet below the sea floor. It takes a long time to heat something that’s 3,000 feet away from you.
Q: When do things get rolling?
A: We started October 1st.
We’ll be targeting specific locations and analyzing them this year. Then next year, we’ll do a preliminary drilling experiment to make sure our technology works. And then either a year after or early in the fourth year, we’ll have a full-scale drilling project.
Q: When will the public be able to see results from the study?
A: The first significant public information will be in that year-two offshore test, in which, hopefully, we’ll document the presence hydrate and our ability to retrieve it.