Scientists take a fresh look at methane-hydrate

Nov 18, 2001 01:00 AM

In Canada's Northwest Territories, where the Mackenzie River empties into the Beaufort Sea, scientists are studying a vast deposit of frozen methane as a potential energy source. Methane hydrates are ice-like substances found in deep ocean sediments and Arctic permafrost that contain methane in a highly concentrated form.
"We're investing in it because of the interest in trying to limit or reduce the amount of reliance that we have on foreign energy sources," said Peter McGrail, a staff scientist at the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, just north of Richland. PNNL and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory are part of an international team of private sector energy and research companies and US and Canadian governmental agencies working on the project at the Mallik Gas Hydrate Research Well.

Hydrates have been found under the tundra in Alaska and Canada, and under the ocean floor off the coast of Oregon, the Carolinas and in the Gulf of Mexico. The US Geological Survey has estimated the value of gas hydrates in the United States at 320,000 tcf of gas, 200 times conventional natural gas resources and reserves in the country.
Come this winter, when the temperature is about 30 degrees below zero in the Arctic, crews at the Mallik well will drill three-fourths of a mile into rock to take core samples of the crystalline hydrates. The goal is to find a way to produce useable methane gas in a safe and cost-effective way.
Last year, Congress appropriated nearly $ 50 mm for this type of research. "If only 1 % of the methane hydrate resource could be made recoverable, the United States could more than double its domestic natural gas resource base," the bill's sponsor, US Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, said at the time.

Once the core sample is retrieved, it will be shipped to a field lab in the small town of Inuvik before portions are packaged and sent to researchers, McGrail said. To date, most of the work on gas hydrates has been focusedon trying to understand what they are and how they're formed. This project takes the next step: "How can we go in and produce natural gas from these deposits?" McGrail said.
Methane hydrate looks a lot like ice, a crystal structure of methane gas surrounded by water molecules. "What we have to do is essentially unfreeze that ice-like structure and get the gas to release," McGrail said.
One of the problems has been a natural Catch-22 -- when efforts are made to thaw the hydrates, the process consumes energy from its surroundings, driving temperatures down and naturally shutting off the release of the gas. "If you had an oil and gas company with tens of millions of dollars of equipment trying to get the gas out, and then having to sit there and wait -- it might take months -- it would be prohibitively expensive to have that equipment idle," McGrail said.

The key will be finding things that could be injected into the subsurface that would allow the economical recovery of the gas. Another challenge is to release the gas without turning the soil and sediment into mush, which could threaten heavy equipment sitting above the deposit on the tundra or the ocean floor.
In addition to taking the core samples, the first attempt will be made to actually produce methane gas at the site, by pumping it out, McGrail said. Next summer, the Ocean Drilling Program, a science and research partnership exploring the structure and evolution of the Earth, will begin drilling at Hydrate Ridge, off the Oregon coast, McGrail said.
The participants in the Mallik project include: The Geological Survey of Canada, Japan National Oil, GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, the India National Gas Hydrate Program, the US Geological Survey and the US Department of Energy, which have contributed a combined $ 22 mm for the drilling portion of the project. The International Continental Scientific Drilling Program is contributing $ 1.3 mm.

Source: AP Online
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