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Fall/Winter 2004 Vol. 4 No. 3

Table of Contents

Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Untapped Potential

Focus Needed to
Fire Up Research on Natural Gas Source

Plentiful in Arctic regions and beneath the ocean floor, methane hydrate is a highly concentrated and potent source of natural gas. If methane could be efficiently plucked from hydrate deposits, energy supplies from natural gas could be extended for decades -- perhaps centuries -- to come.

Producing gas from hydrate can be a risky business, however. For starters, accurately identifying hydrate deposits remains a challenge. And there are no hard numbers on how much of the world's vast reserves can actually be recovered. Also, methane is a greenhouse gas that has been widely cited as a factor in previous episodes of global warming; releasing methane from hydrate could affect global climate change.

But the potential of this natural resource is so great that the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, and India have established research programs to study it. Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct or oversee America's investigations in this area. It also called for the National Research Council to assess DOE's methane hydrate R&D program.

On the whole, the program boosts the ability of U.S. commercial interests and scientists to develop energy from gas hydrate and to understand potential geological constraints on drilling through hydrate, says a new Research Council report. Still, improvements are needed.

About 60 percent of the program's annual budget of roughly $9 million has gone to three industry-managed research projects. Because of their large size and price tags, special checks and balances should be implemented to aid such efforts, the report says. For example, reviews of how projects have progressed ought to be based on solid science. The results of these projects also should be available in public databases because tax dollars supported the initiatives and other scholars might find the information useful.

The program should fund postdoctoral fellowships to enhance training in the field, and it should closely examine any links between methane hydrate and climate change, the report adds. Program officials also should seek more opportunities to form partnerships with international groups that are conducting similar research.

Several specific research topics need to be tackled systematically because they are not well-understood, such as effective ways to identify hydrate deposits, design comprehensive field experiments, and make the most of technology in gas-hydrate recovery and production processes. Overall, greater scientific oversight of DOE's program is needed to ensure that its key goals are met, the report says.   -- Vanee Vines

Charting the Future of Methane Hydrate Research in the United States. Committee to Review the Activities Authorized Under the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000, Ocean Studies Board and the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2004, 202 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09292-2, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $43.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Earl H. Doyle, an independent consultant who specializes in the integration of marine geology, geophysics, and geotechnical engineering, and a former employee of Shell Oil Co., where he worked for 30 years in senior engineering positions. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Copyright 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences