Texas researchers win federal grants to study methane hydrates

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department on Wednesday announced it is giving seven institutions — including two Texas universities — nearly $5 million in grants to continue research on how to unlock methane gas trapped in ice-like crystals under the sea floor and the Arctic permafrost.

The move underscores the Obama administration’s continued commitment to investigating the potential energy resources locked in methane hydrates, despite concerns that unchecked methane releases could accelerate global warming.

It could take decades for the projects to be commercialized. There may be little need to develop new natural gas resources now, while the U.S. is awash in methane from onshore resources extracted through existing techniques. But supporters say research now could lead to commercial extraction and production techniques years down the line, enabling the resource to be tapped if and when it is needed.

The University of Texas at Austin nabbed the biggest single award, of $1.7 million, to use 3-D modeling to examine the forces that are causing massive methane hydrate accumulations deep below the seabed. The research could help identify how much free gas they contain and where they are located.

The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station in College Station won $390,000 to develop a numeric model addressing challenges of producing methane from hydrate-bearing sediments, including how the structures may react to environmental changes.

Backing natural gas

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz cast methane hydrates as the next big potential revolution in natural gas. The United States is experiencing a surge in natural gas production, spurred by the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in dense shale rock.

Millions of dollars in Energy Department investments, combined with work by private companies, helped propel today’s fracturing revolution.

“The recent boom in natural gas production — in part due to long-term Energy Department investments beginning in the ’70s and ’80s — has had a transformative impact on our energy landscape, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support thousands of American jobs,” Moniz said in a statement. “While our research into methane hydrates is still in its early stages, these investments will increase our understanding of this domestic resource and the potential to safely and sustainably unlock the natural gas held within.”

Energy potential

Researchers have long been interested in the potential of methane hydrates, which are ice-like solids with gas molecules trapped inside. Because the methane molecules inside are not bound chemically to the structures, they can be released when heated.

Typically found in high-pressure, low-temperature environments, including the depths below Alaska’s thick permafrost, they hold tremendous promise as an energy source if researchers can figure out how to extract the gas economically.

Related story: Alaska ice tested as possible new energy source

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that methane hydrates may contain more energy than all of the world’s fossil fuels combined.

Methane hydrate advocates also are encouraged by the potential to store carbon dioxide inside the lattice-like structures, effectively creating a long-term home for the heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

Environmental concerns

Previously, the Energy Department joined forces with ConocoPhillips to conduct tests on harvesting methane gas deposits on Alaska’s north slope. Those tests concluded last year, when the Energy Department decided to pursue a second phase of research.

After promising tests in Japan, researchers in that country said they may be on track to commercialize the so-called burning ice by 2018.

But there are big environmental concerns about the potential resource. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas that is 34 times more powerful in trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time scale, according to new estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A July 24 commentary in Nature warned that if methane were accidentally released in the Arctic, it could cause catastrophic, rapid warming, with melting ice and vast global economic damages amounting to $60 trillion.

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