U.S. and Canadian Researchers Begin Work on Commercially Extracting Methane from Gas Hydrates

Despite the tremendous risks involved, more and more countries are sinking ever larger sums of money into research examining the energy potential of gas hydrates, or methane clathrates. As Janet Pelley reports in the online edition of Environmental Science & Technology, government and industry scientists in Canada and U.S. have embarked on a long-term project to commercialize the extraction of methane from these hydrates, which some believe could hold the world's largest supply of carbon -- roughly 4,200,000 trillion cubic feet of methane.

The project was given new urgency following the release of a report by the nonprofit Council of Canadian Academies, which cautioned that were Canada to completely ignore gas hydrates it could find itself at a disadvantage vis-a-vis other countries or, worse, could be forced to rely on "more damaging ways" to meet its energy needs. While sounding an optimistic note on their energy potential, the report warned that the extraction process wasn't without risks.
Image from USGS
Countries and businesses hope to harness hydrates' energy potential
A team of U.S. and Canadian scientists recently sunk a well deep below hundreds of meters of permafrost into a gas hydrate reservoir at a site in Canada's Northwest Territories. They were able to sustain gas flows ranging between 70,000 to 140,000 cubic feet per day during a 6-day trial. A few oil and gas companies, including BP, are also getting into the act. Last year, BP drilled a test well on Alaska's North Slope in partnership with the U.S. DoE and plans on doing more tests over the coming years.

According to Tim Collett, a geologist with the USGS, the amount of concentrated gas hydrate deposits found in coarse sand formations may rival the amount of remaining oil and gas deposits. It will be another 5 to 10 years at least before companies are able to tap into these vast deposits, however; the DoE expects to have the right technologies in place by 2015 to allow industry to begin extracting hydrates in Alaska.

Replacing coal with clean-burning methane could significantly cut CO2 emissions
Edith Allison, the DoE's exploration program manager, estimates that replacing coal in power plants with methane extracted from gas hydrates could slash carbon dioxide emissions by up to 50%. As I wrote a few months ago, a group of Japanese and Canadian researchers also broke ground on a test well in the Mackenzie Delta, successfully extracting methane from hydrates stored in the permafrost -- though they made no effort to capture the gas.

Worth the risk?
Presently, it seems as though the risks involved in mining this large supply of methane far outweigh the potential benefits. As noted before, methane is 21 - 23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2; that means that were the extraction process to go terribly wrong -- and it's important to remember that hydrates are extremely sensitive to slight changes in temperature and pressure -- the consequences would be considerable. While some argue that tapping these deposits is a better alternative than simply having it slowly seep out into the atmosphere over the next century, the report notes that exploiting gas hydrates will "not remove sufficient quantities from the earth's crust to prevent the possible long-term dissociation of gas hydrate due to climate change".

Best not to risk potentially unleashing a huge carbon bomb.

Via ::Environmental Science & Technology: Gas hydrates on the front burner (news website)

More about methane hydrates
::Researchers Extract Permafrost-Locked Methane from Gas Hydrates, Potentially Paving Way for Large New Energy Source
::Searching for Alternative Energy Beneath the Ocean Floor
::Methane Leaks from the Ocean Floor: Not Such a Big Deal

Tags: Canada | United States

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