Hidden beneath the permafrost of the Arctic and under the sediment of the deep sea floor surrounding most continents lies an energy resource that could fuel the world for generations: methane hydrate. Also known as fire ice, this solid form of methane gas is abundant and clean burning (relative to coal). It also has the potential to be converted into a fuel we could use in our cars.
First identified in the 1930s, methane hydrate frequently clogged extraction pipes of natural gas miners in cold climates. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists working in Western Siberia realized that methane hydrate occurred naturally in the environment. Then, in the 1980s, oil companies discovered significant deposits of methane hydrate under the sediment in the deep sea waters off the coast of Guatemala. The true impact of methane hydrate reserves, however, has only been recognized the energy industry in the last decade. It has been estimated that worldwide methane hydrate deposits could be between 25.2 and 157.8 trillion cubic feet, 15 times the world’s natural gas reserves in shale.
While methane hydrate could meet the world’s energy needs for the next century and beyond, there are a number of technical barriers that must be resolved for large scale production to become a reality. Since methane hydrate is solid ice when found beneath permafrost or under the deep sea, it must be brought to the surface under pressure and converted to gas for commercial use; a process which entails both risk and substantial infrastructure investments. Experimentation with extractions and processing methods is still in its infancy.
In 2012, a team of US and Japanese scientists began testing on system to recover methane hydrate by injecting carbon dioxide into concentrations of the substance. The process, which has been compared to “fracking,” is currently the only method in use. It will likely only prove commercially viable in areas of Alaska or Northern Russia where there are high concentrations of hydrate, reservoir rocks with high gas permeability, and where there is an existing infrastructure to support the extraction of a gas.
Unlike many “green energy” options, the extraction of methane hydrate involves substantial risk to the environment if large deposits of methane are accidentally released into the atmosphere. Methane hydrate, which converts to methane in the atmosphere, has five times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Many environmentalists feel large scale production will inevitably lead to environmental disasters which are far more harmful than conventional technologies.
Countries like Japan, however, that currently rely on oil imports and nuclear power for their energy needs see methane hydrate as a safer and more responsible way to utilize their local resources. They argue that the benefits of methane hydrate easily outweigh the risks when compared to their current options.
Regardless of the environmental debate, it’s likely that ongoing research into the commercial development of methane hydrate will continue. A research and development project in Japan is currently projected to produce commercial significant quantities of methane by 2016. Similar projects are in the works by both China and Philips Conoco in coordination with the University of Bergen. Since methane hydrate becomes a stable liquid at a temperature higher than natural gas, there is also significant interest in liquefying it for use in automobiles. With the rapid changes in technology, it is entirely possible that the next generation will be powering their cars with fire ice.
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