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It’s an elusive, chimerical material locked beneath the Earth’s surface, often called “fire and ice” for its frozen form and its tendency to burst into flames. Depending on whom you ask, it could be the solution to our energy problems—or an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions. It’s a compound called methane hydrate, and UT just received one of its biggest grants ever, to the tune of $58 million, to study it.
Let’s break it down right here. (Although we shouldn’t literally break it down, since breaking down methane hydrate releases a harmful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. More on that in a moment.)
What is methane hydrate?
Methane hydrate is a solid compound made up of a methane molecule surrounded by a cage-like lattice of water molecules. It’s found mostly in two places: in the Arctic permafrost or under the ocean floor.
Why are researchers so interested in it?
Because they believe it holds great potential as a possible fuel. There’s an estimated 700,000 trillion cubic feet of the stuff—much, much more than all the natural gas and oil ever discovered on the planet. The U.S. Department of Energy has described the amount as “truly staggering.” If we can mine it safely and affordably, methane hydrate could be the next big energy source.
Sounds great! So how will we get to it?
Therein lies the rub. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas: It contributes to our climate change woes whenever it’s released into the atmosphere. And the methane in methane hydrate could be released during its perilous journey up from the sea floor to the surface. Any change in temperature or pressure will cause the compound to dissociate and release the gas, so scientists and engineers are searching for new ways to bring it to the surface without that happening. Essentially, they need to create a high-tech “pressure cooker” to safely retrieve methane hydrate, and that’s what this grant will go toward.
The work poses significant risks to the environment, to the economy, and to human safety (since deep-sea drilling is always risky business). Even an oil and gas trade journal went so far as to call exploring methane hydrate “a flirtation with disaster.” But researchers are quick to point out that today’s fuel sources weren’t always a safe bet, either.
“In the 70s, when we looked at shales, nobody thought we were going to ever produce gas or oil from them,” lead researcher Peter Flemings told NPR. “Now, it’s a huge fraction of the energy that’s produced in the U.S. Maybe, 30 years from now, hydrates will provide a natural gas resource.”
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