Methane Hydrate: The Energy Source of the Future. (Maybe).

Some areas of the world are getting desperate to find new sources of energy. In recent days I’ve read about such wacky ideas, from creating fuel from old plastic bags to converting beer waste into electricity. All the while, there are global energy sources going unharnessed, leading to cows literally blowing the doors off barns. There is one source, however, which is being touted as the potential energy of the future, and it is….frozen.

1) Methane hydrate is also known as ‘fire ice’ or ‘clathrates‘ (which sounds contagious), and is essentially a mixture of methane and water which has frozen.

2) It is found in arctic permafrost (soil that maintains a temperature below freezing for over two years), as well as on the ocean floor.  This makes it relatively difficult to access, and hence an expensive process. It is also believed to collect along geological fault lines (California, here we come…).

3) The EIA has a cool graphic to show the evolution of methane hydrates:

4)  It should come as no surprise that the countries pursuing methane hydrates are those who have minimal natural resources. Think: Japan (the world’s largest LNG importer, 2nd largest coal importer, and 3rd largest net oil importer).

5) 40 Tcf of methane hydrates have been identified on the southeast coast of Japan, with hopes of starting production by 2018. Natural gas deposits have already been successfully extracted in preliminary tests. To put this in perspective, Japan consumed nearly 4.4 Tcf in 2012 (…95% of which was met by LNG imports).

6) It is dense. One cubic foot of methane hydrate releases 164 cubic feet of natural gas.

7) The biggest hurdle for methane hydrates? Kinda like how cellulosic ethanol needs to be viable before it can be produced, huge leaps and bounds need to be made in technological development to be able to extract the gas. Some believe it may never be commercially viable (Think: not Japan).

8) Access may be a problem, but volume isn’t. Estimates of the resource range from 10,000 Tcf to 100,000 Tcf (um, actually 700,000 Tcf), with more organic carbon available globally than all other fossil fuel reserves combined, according to Rice University (hark, below).

9) India has been exploring offshore methane hydrates since 2011. The chief geologist of the program has estimated that there is over 900 Tcf of it in Indian waters. India consumed 2.3 Tcf of natural gas in 2011.

10) The USGS estimates that worldwide methane hydrates are between 10 to 100 times as plentiful as US shale gas reserves. Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA’s executive director, said of its potential ‘…shale gas was in the same position 10 year ago…we cannot rule out that new revolutions may take place through technological developments‘.

The prospects of methane hydrate is probably best summed up by the US Department of Energy: their potential is great, but practical development is far off.