DOE Funds Methane Hydrate Research

Working aboard a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, a team of scientists will closely examine potential sites where test wells can be drilled to obtain samples of a unique source of energy. Researchers will be looking for something called "the ice that burns," or methane hydrates, an icy substance that releases a flammable gas when it melts.

Since their discovery in the laboratory nearly 200 years ago, crystal-like compounds called "clathrates" have fascinated scientists. One clathrate in particular, methane hydrate, is gaining considerable attention because of its enormous potential as a source of untapped energy.

Two cruises aboard the research vessel Gyre, one this past spring and another in August, focus on the Keathley Canyon and Atwater Valley regions of the Gulf - large areas of the outer continental shelf off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Both cruises support a larger effort, the Gulf of Mexico Joint Industry Project, funded by the Department of Energy's National Methane Hydrate R&D Program.

The U.S. Geological Survey, also with DOE funding, conducted the first 2-week cruise in May. Using sound waves to image the sedimentary layers of the sea floor, researchers profiled the two regions to determine the likely presence and concentration of hydrates.

During the second cruise, scheduled for August, scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory will refine the search and use a Deep-Towed Acoustics/Geophysics System to make higher resolution measurements in selected locations.

Information collected this year will be used to prioritize sites and narrow the geographic boundaries for drilling in 2004 and 2005. When the data is combined from both phases of the project - this year's evaluations and future drilling experiments - it will comprise the most comprehensive data set to date of deepwater hydrate sediments.

A better understanding of methane hydrate could have multiple benefits:

  • A potential energy source. Methane, the principal component of natural gas, is the potential energy source in methane hydrate. Huge amounts of methane hydrate underlie our oceans and polar permafrost. By some estimates, the energy locked up in methane hydrate deposits is more than twice the global reserves of all conventional gas, oil, and coal deposits combined. A safe and economical way to recover hydrates could provide a vast supply of a clean energy for the future.

  • Improved drilling safety. As we venture into deeper water to drill for conventional gas and oil, we are more likely to encounter methane hydrates accidentally. Many researchers anticipate that drilling through hydrates may pose a hazard to the stability of the well, the platform anchors, tethers, or even entire platforms. To ensure drilling safety, we must understand the geological environment and physical and chemical conditions under which hydrates exist, and be able to predict their distribution and concentration before drilling starts.

  • Understanding global climate change. Methane is a greenhouse gas, more than 20 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Large releases of methane from decomposing methane hydrate have been linked to episodes of intense global warming that occurred tens of millions of years ago. Although not a specific focus of these cruises, improved understanding of the stability of marine methane hydrate deposits may aid scientists studying global climate change, and help ensure the stability of hydrate deposits as we seek to produce methane as an energy source.

  • The Joint Industry Project is a 4-year collaborative effort to develop technology and collect data to characterize naturally occurring gas hydrates in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Industry partners in the Joint Industry Project include ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips, Total E&P USA, Schlumberger, Halliburton Energy Services, the Minerals Management Service (Gulf of Mexico Region), the Japan National Oil Corporation, and India's Reliance Industries. Academic collaborators include the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Texas A&M University through the Joint Oceanographic Institute.

    For more information on the Joint Industry Project and the National Methane Hydrate R&D Program, visit the National Energy Technology Laboratory's Hydrate website at National Methane Hydrate Program.
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