BALTIMORE, MD-Unless you’re talking to one of the world’s few oceanic geologists, "methane hydrates" would most likely be an unfamiliar term. Yet these massive deposits of methane gas could turn into the next major energy source. And with the right push, they could be worth an inestimable amount of money one day soon.
Methane hydrate, also called "methane ice," is basically a form of water ice that contains methane gas, the principal component of natural gas. This ice is produced where methane gas and water are merged at freezing temperatures. Under intense pressure for millions of years, tiny molecules of methane slowly become encased in ice, creating methane hydrates.
Originally, methane hydrates were thought to occur only in the outer regions of the solar system, where temperatures are low and water ice is common. But with recent technology, extremely large deposits of methane hydrates have been found under sediments all across the ocean floors of Earth.
Of course, there’s a catch . . .
At a glance, the current state of methane hydrate technology appears very disheartening-and production of these hydrates is today’s science fiction. But once you focus on the opportunities that may lie only a decade down the road, the word "opportunities" seems a paltry description of what could be to come.
Imagine this: A possible energy source equivalent to 400,000,000,000,000,000-that’s 400 quintillion-cubic feet of methane gas! At current consumption rates, that’s enough to supply the entire world’s demand for another 4,000 years.
Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Especially considering that we may be in for severe shortages, with the Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently predicting that world consumption of natural gas alone will rise by 91% to 182 trillion cubic feet in less than twenty-five years.
Now, like I said, the ability to exploit methane hydrates in commercially viable amounts is still very far away. But it certainly could be a driving force in the lives of your children and grandchildren.
The old saying "too good to be true" may unfortunately hold with methane hydrates, due to the limitations of current technology. Truth is, the technology for extracting methane hydrates from these massive reserves around the globe is still in its infancy, and certain hazards must be overcome in order to make this energy source feasible.
The largest downside to methane hydrate lies in the fact that it is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas capable of containing 20% more heat than carbon dioxide. This represents a powerful risk in mining production, since an inadvertent release of a large deposit could result in a dramatic effect of global temperatures.
There is another hazard associated with the mining techniques: Drilling deep ocean deposits could cause these highly pressurized pockets of gas to burst, endangering the sediments that support the drilling equipment and jeopardizing the platforms’ stability.
In another example of the dangers that can result from unintentional methane releases, scientists have found evidence in the earth’s past of a period of 55,000 years during which a large methane release from the ocean floor caused water temperatures to rise more than 5 degrees off the coast of Africa, making them so acidic that many bottom-dwelling species became extinct.
Certainly something we would like to avoid, if possible.
Risk vs. Reward
By now you’re asking whether or not this potentially substantial energy source is worth a possible global catastrophe.
The problem is that nobody will be able to answer that question effectively until technological advances occur. But are we doing anything now?
Well, we used to be. Under the Clinton administration, the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000 called for a group of various governmental agencies, universities and oil companies to research the possibility of producing methane hydrates by 2015.
Funding, however, was stopped in 2005. This happened in the same year that a possibly substantial deposit of methane hydrates was discovered just 15 miles off the coast of California.
So unless leading countries push to bolster research within a decade, the technology for accessing this untouched energy source will remain where it is today, stagnant. This in turn would delay viable methane hydrate production for 30 to 50 years.