US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced nearly $5 million in funding across seven research projects designed to increase the understanding of methane hydrates. Methane hydrates are ice-like structures with natural gas locked inside, which can be found both onshore and offshore—including under the Arctic permafrost and in ocean sediments along nearly every continental shelf in the world.
The substance looks remarkably like white ice, but it does not behave like ice. When methane hydrates are “melted,” or exposed to pressure and temperature conditions outside those where the formations are stable, the solid crystalline lattice turns to liquid water, and the enclosed methane molecules are released as gas.
In May 2012, the Energy Department, alongside its Japanese partners, announced a successful field trial of methane hydrate production technologies on Alaska’s North Slope. (Earlier post.)
Managed by the Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, the new projects will build on that success by researching alternative methods of extraction and the potential for commercialization, as well as the environmental impact of natural gas extraction from hydrate formations.
Selected projects are:
Georgia Tech Research Corporation. Researchers will design, build, and test a new borehole-sampling tool that will allow direct, in-place measurements of methane hydrate-bearing sediment properties by reaching beyond the zone disturbed by drilling. The tool will be field deployed to collect never-before-acquired data to evaluate resource recovery, seafloor stability, and gas hydrate responses to environmental changes.
DOE Investment: approximately $480,000
The University of Texas at Austin. The University of Texas at Austin along with Ohio State University and Columbia University-Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory will examine what the primary influences are on the development of persistent, massive hydrate accumulations in deep sediments below the seabed. By extending a 3-D reservoir model to include methods of sediment deposits, compaction, pressure development, and methane creation, the project will provide valuable insights on the formation of massive hydrate accumulations, the role of free gas in their persistence, and locations where these massive accumulations might be possible.
DOE Investment: approximately $1.68 million
Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) TEES, in conjunction with the Georgia Institute of Technology, will develop a numerical model to address the many complexities associated with production from hydrate-bearing sediments. The project will provide a powerful new modeling tool to optimize future hydrate production-related testing and to provide a higher understanding of how hydrate systems react to induced or natural changes in their environment.
DOE Investment: approximately $390,000
Oregon State University Oregon State University, in conjunction with a separate project funded by the EU through Universities of Bremen (Germany) and Tromso (Norway), will assess the response of methane hydrates to environmental changes at the Svalbard continental margin, part of Norway’s continental shelf. Water and sediment core samples will be collected and analyzed to assess chemistry and microbiology changes from factors that constrain biochemical responses in high latitude (Arctic) settings. Results will provide insights into the response of gas hydrates to changing environmental conditions in zones susceptible to climate warming, the fate of methane in shallow subsurface and water columns, and the role gas hydrates play in carbon cycling.
DOE Investment: approximately $650,000
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Conditions conducive for the development of natural gas hydrates generally occur between the seafloor and a relatively shallow, sub-bottom depth where temperatures become excessively warm because of geothermal influences. This depth interval is commonly called the Gas Hydrate Stability Zone (GHSZ). The fate of methane in the water column over places in the ocean floor where hydrogen sulfide, methane and other hydrocarbon-rich fluids seepage occurs, within and above the GHSZ, will be investigated to determine the likelihood of released methane reaching surface water or the atmosphere and the role that “hydrate armoring” or coating of methane bubbles may have on that methane transport. MIT will work with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of New Hampshire on the project. Study results should provide insights into conditions controlling methane bubble formation and fate, enhance the understanding of seafloor methane release relative to gas hydrate stability, and provide new information on an area of high interest for gas hydrate exploration.
DOE Investment: approximately $900,000
University of Washington. The University of Washington will study the effects of contemporary warming of bottom water temperatures on gas hydrate stability along the Washington Margin—the boundary between two continental plates. This study will be one of the first programs (outside the Arctic) focused on the response of a gas hydrate system located at the upper edge of the gas hydrate stability zone to environmental changes. The project will provide a geochemical evaluation of the origin of methane emissions and a quantitative estimate of methane flux and oxidation rates from the sediments, through the water column, and to the atmosphere.
DOE Investment: approximately $630,000
University of Oregon. The University of Oregon plans to develop predictive models to enhance our understanding of how hydrates develop, environmental forces that cause them to dissociate and disrupt sedimentary structure, and better forecasting of hydrate associated slope failure, gas escape features, and the release of methane into the water column and potentially the atmosphere.
DOE Investment: approximately $280,000