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Exploring energy trapped in ice

By MEREDITH MACKENZIE, UPI Correspondent   |   Feb. 14, 2006 at 8:47 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Geological Survey, cooperating with other research agencies, is conducting research to see if gas hydrates, essentially crystallized methane, might serve as a viable alternative fuel source.

Gas hydrates are crystallized methane gas molecules trapped inside water molecules. Hydrates are found naturally in Arctic regions and in abundance on the sea floor where the frozen gas cements sediments together. Large hydrate reserves have also been found off the coast of the Carolinas and the Bermuda Triangle. Broken down, the hydrates can yield 160 cubic feet of natural gas from 1 cubic foot of hydrate ice. Not only do gas hydrates themselves represent an enormous potential fuel source, but scientists at the USGS believe there to be reserves of traditional natural gas and oil resources trapped underneath the hydrates in the ocean floor.

The National Methane Hydrates Research and Development program, which was extended in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, is a collaboration of scientific research groups, universities and divisions of the Energy, Commerce, Defense and Interior Departments.

Section 968 of the Energy Policy Act outlines directives and funding resources for hydrate research. The act calls for research into the properties of gas hydrates, seismic monitoring, remote sensor technology, exploratory drilling, education and training as well as the environmental impact of using hydrates as a fuel source.

"We have $2 million dollars in the budget to accelerate gas hydrates research," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said last Friday.

Norton cited the potential of gas hydrates but warned that a lack of technology still made it economically viable.

"The estimate is that we have -- based on our current usage of natural gas -- about 100,000 years worth of our current usage," said Norton. "...We don't yet have the technology to develop that resource and don't know if that would be economic at all."

The task of developing the technology to locate and develop gas hydrates as a resource for energy falls to the research teams. Within the national research and development program there are 14 ongoing field studies and 10 lab projects that range from researching the properties of methane hydrates to testing remote detection and drilling technology.

"The science is very new on hydrates. Hydrates were only discovered in nature back in the early '80s," said Ray Boswell, technology manager for methane hydrate research at the National Energy Technology Laboratory under the Department of Energy. Boswell said it is hard to say if hydrates will become a viable fuel source in the future.

"We don't know everything we need to know about it (gas hydrate) in order to produce it," he said.

There are many obstacles in the way before gas hydrates become an economically viable fuel source.

"The broad consensus is that there is a lot of it," said Boswell. "What we don't know is the nature of its distribution, whether we have the ability to find it efficiently in concentrations sufficient for drilling."

Scientists are working to characterize or determine the physical and chemical properties of hydrates to see if they can be extracted from the ocean floor in a flow steady enough to justify the expense of offshore drilling. Boswell said research is ongoing for the technology to be able to remotely detect and characterize hydrates before drilling.

A National Energy Technology Laboratory project in Anchorage, Alaska, is testing the commercial viability of methane hydrates as an alternative fuel source. The research team, which includes USGS, University of Alaska Fairbanks and BP, are testing remote detection technology and drilling methods on an actual methane hydrate reservoir in the Alaskan permafrost.

"We're looking for hydrate that is fairly dense concentration," said Boswell. "The project on the Alaskan north slope is designed to determined reservoir properties; to figure out what you have to do to get the gas to flow."

The release of the free gas from methane hydrates has the potential to pose a serious problem for global warming. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. According to the USGS, methane is 10 times more effective at trapping terrestrial radiation than carbon dioxide and ranks second to CO2 in atmospheric concentration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is researching the effects of large releases of methane gas on the atmosphere as well as monitoring microbial life in the waters surrounding gas hydrate reservoirs. Scientists at USGS can't predict with certainty the effect that releasing methane as a fuel source will have on the atmosphere because the associated technology is still being developed.

The federal budget for fiscal 2007 cuts overall funding for natural gas research in an effort to get the oil and gas industry, which displayed record profits in 2006, to fund research and development. The plan to slim down natural gas research has lawmakers who supported the energy act talking.

"Given the president's expressed commitment to reducing our dependence on foreign oil, the enacted reauthorization of the program, the expected long-term decrease in the supply of natural gas, and the Department of Interior's proposed increase in its methane hydrates program, I cannot understand why President Bush is proposing to zero out the entire natural gas technology program, which includes gas hydrates," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D- Hawaii, a proponent of gas hydrate technology and member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

"To me, that is no excuse for short-sightedness with respect to the nation's energy supply."

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(Comments to energy@upi.com)

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