INEEL microbiologist joins Japanese on expedition to tap marine-methane deposits

After fourteen grueling days on a drilling rig off the coast of Japan, INEEL microbiologist Mark Delwiche brought home his prize -- two coolers full of frozen logs of mud. These core samples harbor stubbornly hardy methane-producing microorganisms that may eventually provide answers to the world's future energy worries.

Mark Delwiche is part of a team of microbiologists at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory pursuing fundamental research to learn the secrets of methane-producing microorganisms known as methanogens. Through a cooperative research effort with the Japanese Petroleum Exploration Company, Delwiche helped crew the drilling rig H.G. Hulme, Jr. in late November to secure deep subsurface core samples that will form the basis of his research for the year.

The crew drilled into a marine shelf region 60 kilometers off Japan's Omae Zaki peninsula over the Nankai Trough through 950 meters of water. The area is known to contain large amounts of gas hydrate -- methane gas molecules trapped in lattices of ice -- and may also contain extractable natural gas in formations considerably deeper than the hydrate deposits. For the Japanese, the purpose of the expedition was to explore the possibilities of harvesting the fuel.

Delwiche spent the first couple of balmy 75-degree days on the drilling rig "on call" and ready to take samples as the crew positioned the semi-submersible drilling rig and started to core into the ocean floor. But a couple of experimental coring techniques failed, delaying the process and contributing to a sense of urgency and anticipation among the crew. Delwiche, who e-mailed updates of his progress to the lab, waxed poetic at the range of birds he was able to observe from the rig and references to Moby Dick started to show up in his messages.

By day four, the crew resorted to conventional coring techniques and the real work began -- sometimes four hours on, four hours of

Contact: Deborah Hill
DOE/Idaho National Laboratory

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