AUSTIN, Texas – A research team led by the University of Texas has received $58 million to analyze deposits of frozen methane offshore under the Gulf of Mexico to establish its potential to increase the world’s energy supply.
The grant, one of the largest ever awarded to the university, will allow researchers to advance scientific understanding of methane hydrate, a substance found in abundance beneath the ocean floor and under Arctic permafrost.
The US Department of Energy is providing $41,270,609, with the remainder funded by industry and the research partners.
In addition to UT Austin’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) at the Jackson School of Geosciences, the study includes researchers from Ohio State University, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and the US Geological Survey.
Often referred to as “fire and ice” because of its ability to produce a dazzling flame when lit, methane hydrate is an ice-like solid compound that forms in low-temperature and high-pressure environments where molecules of methane, a chief constituent of natural gas, are trapped within a lattice structure of water molecules.
Estimates vary on the amount of energy that could be produced from methane hydrate worldwide, but the potential is huge. In the Gulf of Mexico, where the team will be sampling, there is estimated to be about 7,000 tcf (198 tcm) of methane in sand-dominated reservoirs near the seafloor. That is more than 250 times the amount of natural gas used in the US in 2013. Hydrates may contribute to long-term energy security within the US and elsewhere. Many large global economies that lack clean and secure energy supplies have potentially enormous hydrate resources.
Methane hydrate is stable under high pressure and low temperatures, but separates into gas and water quickly when warmed or depressurized, causing the methane to be released. This poses technical and scientific challenges to producing energy from the deepwater deposits.
“The heart of this project is to acquire intact samples so that we can better understand how to produce these deposits,” says Peter Flemings, a professor and UTIG research scientist and the project’s principal investigator.
The four-year project will be the first in the offshore US to take core samples of methane hydrate from sandstone reservoirs, Flemings notes, a delicate task that requires transporting samples from great depths to the surface without depressurizing them.
Carlos Santamarina, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a leading methane hydrate expert, says that pressure core sampling is vital to gaining a better scientific understanding of hydrate-bearing sediments.
“The technique is like taking a specimen inside a pressure cooker from thousands of feet below sea level, and bringing it to the surface without ever depressurizing the pressure cooker,” Santamarina says. “With this technology, the sediment preserves its structure and allows us to determine all the engineering properties needed for design.”
Santamarina comments that this project is critical for the US to maintain world leadership in methane hydrate research. He notes that other countries with high energy demands or limited resources – Japan, South Korea, India, and China – also have active research programs.