Huge Potential for Methane Hydrates

Just-completed field trials have produced a steady stream of natural gas from ice-bound methane hydrates in Alaska.

How important is this to the future outlook of commercial and light-duty natural gas vehicles? According to the Department of Energy, natural gas produced from methane hydrates may exceed the energy content of all other fossil fuels combined and make a significant contribution toward energy independence.

Methane hydrates are 3D ice-lattice structures with natural gas locked inside. They are found both onshore and offshore, including under the Arctic permafrost and in ocean sediments along nearly every continental shelf in the world.

Methane hydrates look remarkably like white ice, but do not behave like ice. When methane hydrate is ‘melted,’ or exposed to pressure and temperatures outside those conditions in which it is stable, the solid crystalline lattice turns to liquid water. Most importantly, the enclosed methane molecules are released as gas.

The Department of Energy (DOE), in partnership with ConocoPhillips and the Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corp., has successfully completed an unprecedented test of production technology in the North Slope of Alaska. This technology was developed by the University of Bergen, Norway, and ConocoPhillips. In this proof-of-concept test, a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen was injected into the formation, enabling researchers to safely extract a steady flow of natural gas from methane hydrates.

Building upon this initial small-scale test, DOE is launching a new research effort to conduct a long-term production test in the Arctic, along with research to test additional technologies that could be used to locate, characterize, and safely extract methane hydrates on a larger scale in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The next stages of DOE’s  research effort will be aimed at evaluating gas hydrate production over longer durations with the eventual goal of making sustained production economically viable. The research will include examining the potential environmental impact of methane hydrate production, including possible contributions to climate change.

While this investment may take years to pay off, it could bring results like the shale gas research and technology demonstration efforts that DOE  backed in the 1970s and 1980s. These investments helped pave the way for today’s boom in domestic natural gas production. There’s the potential that by 2025, producing gas from hydrates could find the cost of natural gas cut by 30 percent with thousands of American jobs created in the process.