Image courtesy of kaet44 via flickr
The "flip-side" of having large amounts of methane gas gradually escape the Arctic's thawing permafrost is that some of it could eventually be harnessed to generate electricity. The first, crucial step was met earlier this week when Canadian and Japanese researchers, working in the Mackenzie Delta, successfully extracted methane from frozen gas hydrates locked deep below hundreds of meters of permafrost, as reported by NNS' Brodie Thomas.Though considered risky - methane gas is roughly 23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide - the extraction of methane from these frozen hydrates could offer up a potentially huge source of energy; also found littering the sea floor, hydrates are formed under conditions of extreme pressure and cold when water and methane gas come together.
While not the first time they've managed to extract the gas from hydrates - they previously did so in 2002 - they were able to do so using significantly less energy, a consequence of lowering the pressure of the hydrates instead of heating them up as they were brought to the surface. No effort was made to capture the methane this time around, but Scott Dallimore, chief Canadian scientist with Natural Resources Canada, promisingly noted that a "sustained flow was observed."
The Japanese in particular are eager to determine whether the extraction process is both technically and economically feasible; the Mallik site in the Mackenzie Delta presents the best opportunity to tinker with the process as it is much easier and cheaper to extract the hydrates from there. Dallimore acknowledges that it may take upwards of several years before it is conclusively determined whether or not pursuing methane extraction is a commercially viable - and safe - venture:
"We need to undertake long-term research and development and quantify the amount of gas hydrates in the Delta if we want to realize the commercial potential. We also must address environmental issues including the processes controlling methane release in the natural environment."