Scientists unlock frozen natural gas

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Scientists unlock frozen natural gas — potentially lots and lots of frozen natural gas:

For a decade now, Dallimore and scientists from a half-dozen other countries have been returning to a site on Richards Island on the very northwestern tip of the Northwest Territories to study methane gas hydrates.

A hydrate is created when a molecule of gas — in this case, methane or natural gas — is trapped by high pressures and low temperatures inside a cage of water molecules. The result is almost — but not quite — ice. It’s more like a dry, white slush suffusing the sand and gravel 1,000 metres beneath the Mallik rig.

Heat or unsqueeze the hydrate and gas is released. Hold a core sample to your ear and it hisses.

More significant is the fact that gas hydrates concentrate 164 times the energy of the same amount of natural gas.

And gas hydrate fields are found in abundance under the coastal waters of every continent. Calculations suggest there’s more energy in gas hydrates than in coal, oil and conventional gas combined.

Getting that energy to flow consistently and predictably, however, has been the problem. Using heat to release the gas works, but requires too much energy to be useful. Researchers have also been trying to release the methane by reducing the pressure on it.

Last month, the Mallik team became the first to use that method to get a steady, consistent flow.

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