Alternative Energy

Methane Hydrate Is Flammable Ice, And It Could Be A New Energy Source

Have you ever seen ice that could be lit on fire? Meet methane hydrate, a natural resource found in deposits beneath the ground throughout the world. Scientists are saying it could be the next big thing in eco-friendly fuel.

Methane hydrate embedded in a rock in Oregon.

A Flammable "Game Changer"

Methane hydrate forms in places where the temperature and pressure is just right, like deep underground and far beneath the sea. There are deposits all over the world, including the Arctic Circle and Antarctica. At first glance, it looks like regular ice. But on a molecular level, it's actually methane trapped in a lattice-type cage of frozen water. Experts in the field believe the global supply of methane hydrate is larger than the entire world's supply of natural gas, oil, and coal. If methods can be created to extract it safely and economically, it could be a "game changer" in energy.

There's one problem: methane has up to 36 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Ok, several: extracting the stuff could negatively impact local ecologies, and we haven't found good ways to extract it safely. Nevertheless some researchers, such as Ingo Pecher, a geoscientist from the University of Auckland, believe it's worth exploring these natural methane reserves as an alternative to coal, because burning the gas produces less CO2 than burning coal. Plus, it's everywhere. That could make it a more accessible resource for many countries over the next 20-30 years while greener solutions are being developed over the long term. It could also mean greater self-sufficiency for many countries, such as Japan, that import most or all of their fuel.

The Race is On

By the early 2000s, scientists in Japan, China, Norway, Canada and the United States were all exploring the potential for methane hydrate as a fuel source. In 2013, a team of researchers in Japan made headlines by completing the world's first trial extraction of oceanic methane hydrate. They drilled 1,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean and used specialized equipment to pipe the gas to the surface, and hoped to produce a viable method for commercial use within a decade. Unfortunately, the tests ran into some obstacles, but by May 2017 they were up and running again.

During the same time, Chinese researchers developed a floating gas extraction platform to explore newly discovered methane hydrate deposits in the South China Sea. Using their own method of extraction, they were able to produce 35,000 cubic meters of gas per day—much more than what was produced in the Japanese experiments, according to professors at the University of Singapore. Around the world, China's success is being hailed as a breakthrough, that may just lead to a global revolution in natural energy.

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Methane Hydrate: Fire, Ice, And A Huge Quantity Of Potential Energy

Written by Jamie Ludwig June 8, 2017

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