May 27, 2013 in City

Rock Doc: Japanese break the ice in search for natural gas

E. Kirsten Peters
 

The name “natural gas” might be a puzzle. After all, how could there be such a thing as unnatural gas?

The reason we call natural gas what we do has to do with history. There was a day that people made burnable gas by heating coal. The gases that came off the coal were piped around cities, where they did things like light street lamps and power cook stoves in homes.

Coal gas had its downsides. For one thing, it often contained carbon monoxide. And it took energy to make the gas, so it never could be truly cheap.

Happily, geologists figured out that a gas from within the Earth would burn well. Because it came from Mother Nature rather than being manufactured by people, folks called the new energy source “natural gas.” In time, natural gas replaced coal gas.

Natural gas is mostly made up of what a chemist would call methane. Methane is odorless. To help people detect leaks of natural gas, a scent is added to it. If you’ve even once sniffed treated natural gas, you remember the distinctive odor and you’ll know if a natural gas leak is occurring in your kitchen.

In recent years, a lot more natural gas has come online in our country due to new mining methods including hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking allows the extraction of natural gas and sometimes petroleum from rocks including shale. But now there is a newer development that may add a lot more natural gas to what people can burn each year.

Some 50 miles out to sea, Japanese researchers and engineers have liberated the main ingredient of natural gas from methane hydrates that lie on the seafloor. Working to a depth of more than 3,000 feet, the Japanese tapped a vast reservoir of natural gas bound up in frozen water under high pressure on the seafloor. The hydrates are made of methane molecules trapped in ice. Some call the hydrates “ice that burns” or “fire ice.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has put out a fact sheet on the subject of methane hydrates. Total natural gas reserves are often measured in trillion cubic feet (TCF for short). Worldwide estimates of conventional natural gas resources are about 13,000 TCF. It’s not so easy to estimate what methane hydrates on the seafloor and in permafrost may contain, but the USGS fact sheet gives a range of 100,000 to almost 300,000,000 TCF. Not all of the gas may be extractable, but clearly the total amount of methane hydrates is immense.

The Japanese are particularly interested in methane hydrates off their shores because they don’t have other fossil fuels to exploit. They are therefore likely to lead the rest of the world in looking for ways to mine underwater methane hydrates.

Like other energy resources, there are serious questions about environmental tradeoffs involved in using a lot of methane hydrates to meet our energy needs. But one thing is certain: We’ll be hearing a lot more about the ice that burns.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.


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