Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
The existence of methane hydrates, or "combustible ice," might give Robert Frost's poem scientific credibility...
Burn, Baby, Burn
Though methane clathrate, also known as methane hydrates, may seem like something out of an episode of The X-Files, the truth is flaming ice is real, abundant, and believed to have played a part in the massive climate shifts throughout earth's long history.
What's more, there's enough of it to power the world for 1,000 years.
Back in the 1930s when oil and gas companies started drilling in Alaska, they discovered this mysterious substance: ice that would burn.
It's called methane hydrates (MH), and it's basically molecules of the hydrocarbon caged inside the crystalline lattice of water ice.
Ice in My Tubes
The early drillers didn't like MH, as it clogged up their pipes and made production of oil more complicated.
But then in the 1960s, large fields of MH were found across Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and even in the depths of the planet's oceans...
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated totals of methane hydrates at 317 quadrillion cubic feet — a number that defies being measured even in Rhode Islands, Olympic swimming pools, or “money stacked to the moon five times.”
But alas, according to Ray Boswell, the methane hydrates technology manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, it's mostly unattainable.
However, a massive amount could be extracted...
Even if gas producers restricted themselves to the most workable sandy formations, the amount of recoverable methane in hydrates could be around 10,000 trillion cubic feet.
That would add about 60% to the current estimated recoverable reserves of traditional natural gas in the entire world.
Last year, I told you how Japan was working hard to find a way to commercialize this hydrocarbon asset with a working plant, due in 2016.
China is also experimenting with finding methane hydrates on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and Russia has the only working methane hydrates plant in Norilsk.
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Washington: On the Job
According to Sean Cockerham over at Governing.com:
The Department of Energy has successfully completed an unprecedented test of harvesting the vast storehouse on Alaska’s North Slope of methane hydrate, essentially natural gas locked in ice crystals under the permafrost.
Producing methane hydrate is still a long way from being commercial, but the potential is huge.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the North Slope of Alaska holds 590 trillion cubic feet of methane hydrate, potentially at least three times as much as the huge amount of conventional natural gas on the North Slope.
The Department of Energy said there is the potential to eventually unlock massive reservoirs of methane hydrates that are believed to exist under the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Department of Energy recently ran a test for 30 days. At its conclusion, scientists said they were successful in safely extracting a steady flow of natural gas.
New Harvest Technology
In the past, there were two ways of releasing MH: You heated it with hot water, or you relieve the pressure.
Both of these methods released a lot of MH into the atmosphere, which is 20 times as bad in terms of greenhouse gases as CO2.
The most recent DoE experiment was innovative.
Researchers injected a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen into the hydrate formation, which took in the carbon dioxide and released the methane...
They lowered well pressure to make the hydrate flow and get the gas out.
In other words, this method removed a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and produced an energy source.
Even my environmentally-conscious colleague Jeff Siegel of the Power Portfolio would give two thumbs up for that.
The Department of Energy said the next step in its research effort will be testing gas hydrate production over longer periods, with the eventual goal of making a sustained harvest possible. They are offering $6.5 million in research grants and requesting $5 million from Congress for an additional testing effort.
Since 1995, Christian DeHaemer has specialized in frontier market opportunities. He has traveled extensively and invested in places as varied as Cuba, Mongolia, and Kenya. Chris believes the best way to make money is to get there first with the most. Christian is the founder of Crisis & Opportunity and Managing Director of Wealth Daily. He is also a contributor for Energy & Capital. For more on Christian, see his editor's page.