Methane hydrate: fire, ice, energy

Found near the ocean floor and beneath Arctic permafrost, methane hydrate is a mysterious icy substance that burns when lit and holds vast amounts of potential energy. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences are leading a four-year project to learn more about methane hydrate and how it could be used in the future.

Video source: The University of Texas at Austin / YouTube.

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The University of Texas at Austin is leading a four-year project to study methane hydrate deposits found underneath the Gulf of Mexico. The $58-million project is being funded by the US Department of Energy and other sources. Researchers from the Ohio State University, Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and the US Geological Survey are also participating.

PETER FLEMINGS, Research Scientist, Institute for Geophysics, Jackson School of Geosciences: Methane hydrates have fascinated the community for decades now. This stuff is cool.

So, methane hydrate is a combination of water molecules and methane, where the methane sits inside a cage of these water molecules, and it forms at high pressure and low temperature. Methane hydrates that we commonly talk about are in the Arctic, and the other very common places are continental margins. So as you go into the offshore, the combination of cold water and high pressure leads to a prominence of methane hydrates. 

I think hydrates are a huge potential energy resource. There’s an estimate that there’s seven thousand trillion cubic feet of methane available in these hydrate reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico alone. To give you a sense of what that means, that’s 250 years worth of gas, given our present consumption rates, in the United States. So it’s a tremendous potential supply. 

The problem is how to produce methane hydrates economically, and environmentally. We don’t understand how the material behaviour of these rocks changes as we produce them. If you take that methane hydrate from depth and you don’t control the pressure and the temperature, it’s going to disassociate. The majority of it has just bubbled off into the atmosphere as you’ve raised that rock.

One of the most fascinating challenges of this project is to be able to drill and sample these hydrate deposits. We’re drilling a hole in a mile of water, and then we’re drilling a hole almost a thousand metres below that. You’ve got to go down to that area, you’ve got to take what we call a core: a small cylindrical sample of the rock that has methane hydrate in it. And while you’re down there, you need to seal that sample inside of a pressure vessel, like a pressure cooker, because that sample is under pressure and you have to safely store that sample for further analysis.

In the United States, natural gas is revolutionising our energy supply. We’re using more gas instead of coal, we’re lowering CO2 emissions, and here’s a resource where we know there’s tremendous amounts of methane, of natural gas, stored, and we want to explore the potential for that as a fuel of the future. 

The University of Texas is taking the lead in actually sampling these potential hydrate reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico. At the Jackson School and at UT as a whole, we’re committed to making fundamental advances, and we’re also excited when there’s the potential for those advances to have societal impact.

A better understanding of the methane hydrate resource has potential to change a lot of lives down the road.

Excuse me! The problem with methane

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