Gas from Ice — Methane Hydrates Abound

There’s an article that has been recently posted in the Atlantic that I thought might be interesting to readers here. “What if we never run out of oil” by Charles C. Mann takes a very detailed look at the geology and potential for energy use of crystalline natural gas, or methane hydrate — methane molecules trapped in ice crystals of which there is an estimated 700,000 trillion cubic feet trapped under ocean beds and beneath tundra.

In the article Mann explains that these hydrates are created when organic molecules from dead organisms settle on the ocean floor and are eaten by microorganisms:

In a process familiar to anyone who has seen bubbles coming to the surface of a pond, the microbes emit methane gas as they eat and grow. This undersea methane bubbles up too, but it quickly encounters the extremely cold water in the pores of the sediment. Under the high pressure of these cold depths, water and methane react to each other: water molecules link into crystalline lattices that trap methane molecules. A cubic foot of these lattices can contain as much as 180 cubic feet of methane gas.

Methane hydrates have been known about for a long time, but the gas within them is not easy to extract. Things are changing in that regard with new technologies being developed. Japan, a country with no current domestic energy sources, has embarked on an ambitions program to try and extract gas from methane hydrates in an effort to begin to develop its own energy program, and last month in a first effort, managed to extract 4 million cubic feet of natural gas from offshore hydrate deposits, twice as much as expected. The United States, India, China and South Korea all have methane hydrate research programs.

The articles is long, and very interesting, but is fraught with an underlying anxiety about the environmental consequences that unleashing an abundant source of new fossil fuel on the world. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil, it still releases CO2 — and is considered by many to be only useful as a bridge fuel, something to tide us over until true renewables are ready to take over. It’s possible that a gas-from-hydrate explosion could drop the price of energy to a point where renewables become less attractive economically.

Whether this will have any effect on the development of LENR is an interesting question. It could be that viable, powerful and inexpensive LENR technology will make discussion of these new fossil fuels somewhat moot — but cheap fuel could have the effect of lowering energy prices due to competition.

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