To help feed the nation's increasing appetite for energy, government and industry are searching not only for more sources of energy but also for ones that are unconventional, more reliable, and less carbon-intensive.
One such energy source is natural gas, which in recent years has supplied 20 percent to 25 percent of all energy consumed in the United States, including heat and electrical power. It is also the cleanest of all fossil fuels, emitting up to 50 percent less carbon dioxide than either oil or coal. Given its relatively clean environmental footprint, potential for securing significant domestic supplies, and compatibility with existing infrastructure, natural gas could become a cornerstone of an environmentally and economically sound domestic energy portfolio. But how can natural gas supplies be expanded to meet future needs?
A recent report from the National Research Council says they could be augmented with methane -- the principal component of natural gas -- produced from methane hydrate deposits.
A solid composed of methane and water, methane hydrate occurs in abundance on the world's continental margins and in permafrost regions. The existence of this large and untapped form of energy has provided a strong incentive to explore how methane might be produced from methane hydrate safely, economically, and in an environmentally sensible way. One initiative undertaking such work is the U.S. Department of Energy's Methane Hydrate Research and Development Program, which the report says has made considerable progress toward understanding and developing methane hydrate as a possible energy resource.
"DOE's program and other initiatives provide increasing confidence from a technical standpoint that some commercial production of methane from methane hydrate could be achieved in the United States before 2025," said Charles Paull, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and a senior scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.
Crucial research hurdles remain, however. Technology proved to produce methane efficiently from solid methane hydrate must be established. Understanding how or if methane hydrate can act as a geohazard during drilling also must be determined to create safe and reliable production methods.
To move toward commercial application, the report recommends that DOE's program focus on research and development areas that design production tests, appraise and mitigate environmental issues related to production, and locate the methane hydrate resources on the Alaska North Slope and in marine reserves with greater accuracy. — Jennifer Walsh
Realizing the Energy Potential of Methane Hydrate for the United States. Committee on Assessment of the Department of Energy's Methane Hydrate Research and Development Program: Evaluating Methane Hydrate as a Future Energy Resource, Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2010, approx. 150 pp.; ISBN 0-309-14889-8; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $36.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Charles Paull, senior scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, Calif. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.