Technology About Gas

A song of fire in ice

 By Peter Ward
About gas

Thirty years ago, if you told someone we’d be extracting hydrocarbons from shale on the scale we do today, they’d probably call you a liar…

So, when the possibility of a new type of energy resource emerges, one which is notoriously difficult and expensive to extract, it would take a brave person to write off humanity’s ability to make it work.
Methane hydrates, also known as flammable ice, are an energy resource trapped inside ice. They hold vast amounts of natural gas.
“It looks like ice crystals but if you zoom in to a molecular level, you see that the methane molecules are caged in by the water molecules,” Associate Professor Praveen Linga from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore told the BBC.

Increased expectations

It was once believed that the amount of methane hydrates was insignificant, but now it’s known to occur in great abundance in association with arctic permafrost and in shallow sediments of deep-water continental shelves.
If the methane hydrate is either warmed or depressurized, it reverts back to water and natural gas, that means when it’s brought up to the surface, one cubic meter of gas hydrate releases 164 cubic meters of natural gas.

Core of permafrost (Monteuxs, Wikimedia)

“The most recent estimates of gas hydrate abundance suggest that they contain perhaps more organic carbon than all the world’s oil, gas, and coal combined,” states the National Energy Technology Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
So far, there are no major projects to produce methane hydrates on a large scale, although production tests and R&D initiatives are underway.
The U.S., Japan and China are all looking into ways to exploit the potentially huge source of energy. Japan, which is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas and in the top four oil and coal importers, has been a pioneer in the field. The country lacks natural resources of its own, meaning this new means of resources could represent a chance for an energy independent future without the need for nuclear power.
India and South Korea have also begun research for the same reasons, and a significant breakthrough could change the balance of resources in the world forever. Countries would no longer have to rely on the likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia for oil, for example.
Japan has been looking for alternative sources of fuel since the Fukushima disaster shut down its nuclear power program, and made a start in methane hydrates in 2013, when Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation carried out production tests offshore in the Japan Eastern Nankai Trough, extracting 706,300 cubic feet per day on average for six days.

China’s breakthrough

In June of this year, China announced it had extracted gas from ice under the South China Sea for the first time. The country described the results as a breakthrough. It was reported that every day 16,000 cubic meters of gas was extracted from the test field.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy’s methane hydrate program aims to develop tools and technologies to allow safe methane production. The country’s research and development program includes determining the potential and environmental implications of producing natural gas from flammable ice, ways to predict the location and concentration of subsurface methane hydrate before drilling, the potential effects on climate change, and international collaboration opportunities.
In May, a partnership between the National Energy Technology Laboratory and the University of Texas at Austin began two drilling and coring expeditions to assess gas hydrates in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.

Structure of a gas hydrate block embedded in the sediment of hydrate ridge (Wusel007, Wikimedia)

Problems to be solved

The main problem still to be solved when extracting the gas is making the process more energy efficient and ensuring the environmental damage is kept to a minimum. Should the methane escape rather than be extracted, the consequences for global warming could be extremely serious. Methane is much more damaging to the world’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide, meaning it could seriously affect climate change.
But if the natural gas could be extracted safely, it would be a further boost in the what is considered a cleaner fossil fuel, and one which could help the world towards a low-carbon future. The road to developing flammable ice is fraught with challenges, but as the need for cleaner fuels increases and technology improves at the same time, it would be foolish to bet against the gas being extracted on a huge scale in the next 20-30 years.

SEE MORE: Are methane hydrates the new shale gas? by Mike Scott

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.