Fiery ice from the sea

If you know anything about methane gas and the Office of Naval Research thinks you should it probably has something to do with swamp gas, and a faintly unpleasant sulfurous smell that rises from country marshes on sultry, summer evenings, or perhaps for more romantic types stories of Will-o'-the-Wisp, the flickering lights seen at night above that very same swamp (mundanely, methane igniting spontaneously with traces of odorous hydrogen sulfide found in the bog's rotting organic matter).

Forget it.

Start thinking about methane hydrates - a crystalline form of methane gas and pure water that exists when pressures are sufficiently high, or temperatures sufficiently low. If you manage to keep that pressure high or that temperature low, it looks like a lump of ice. There are mega-tons of the stuff at the bottom of the ocean all over the world and in the Arctic permafrost (about 300,000 trillion cubic feet of it) and it is the cleanest and most abundant source of energy in the world. There is at least twice as much of it around as fossil fuels (some say 10 times as much). And, when burned as a fuel, it releases less carbon dioxide pollution than anything else around.

So why aren't we using it?

Plain and simple, methane hydrates are hard to get at, and once gotten at, hard to transport. Its crystalline form will change to gas when pressures are lowered, or temperatures rise (like when it's brought to the sea surface) and in doing so it will expand 164 times, representing definite storage and transport issues. There are geo-political considerations, too who owns it? What about global warming (because extra methane, when released, is another addition to the greenhouse gases)? And, naturally occurring submarine landslides, which in turn create tsunamis and cause costly damage to pipelines and undersea cables, may be caused by hydrate dissociation and sediment failure; that is, landslides may occur if the substrate becomes

Contact: Gail Cleere
Office of Naval Research

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