It looks like chunks of ice — but put a flame to it and it goes ablaze. Touch it, and you’ll feel an odd sizzling sensation. This peculiar compound is methane hydrate. Not only might it become the source of the world’s next energy bonanza, but it could also let some coastal developing nations leapfrog coal and other ‘dirty’ sources of energy.
Methane hydrate — also known as ‘fire ice’ — is a mixture of methane and water frozen into solid chunks. It forms when methane is produced by bacteria feeding on decomposing organic matter at the bottom of cold oceans. There, the combination of cold and extreme pressure can lock methane into a crystalline cage of frozen water molecules. Methane hydrate can be found in permafrost that was once under the ocean and under the sea floor in deep water along most continental margins.
Developing nations are starting to take note. For one thing, there is a lot of this strange stuff out there — potentially lying in deep water off their coasts. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the amount of energy trapped in hydrates is more than all the world’s other fossil fuels reserves combined. On top of that, fire ice burns much more cleanly than dirtier fossil fuels and so may power development in a greener fashion.
Several developing nations are beginning research into the possibility of harnessing methane hydrates — and potentially replacing their dependence on energy imports with huge stocks of relatively clean fuel. When burned, the gas hydrates release much less carbon dioxide than oil and coal and almost no ash and zero mercury.
Still, nobody is really sure whether extracting methane from gas hydrates is good for the environment. After all, gas can leak and methane is a major contributor to global warming.
Developed nations have predictably made the most progress in assessing gas hydrates. Japan has got the furthest, presumably prompted by their own scarcity of natural resources and their aversion to nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. In March, the country successfully carried out an industrial-scale drilling operation that extracted gas hydrates from a site some 50 kilometres south-east of Japan’s main island. Canada, China, New Zealand, Taiwan and the United States have similarly shown interest in developing their capacity to harvest methane from hydrates.
India in the vanguard
And developing nations are also making their own efforts. In 2001, India launched its National Gas Hydrate Program (NGHP), a quasi-governmental organisation charged with scoping out the methane hydrate reserves in national waters.
During an expedition in 2006, researchers explored four different offshore areas: Kerala-Konkan Basin near the west coast, Krishna-Godavari Basin and Mahanadi Basin off the east coast, and the Andaman Sea. They drilled 39 wells at 21 sites, and confirmed the presence of several hydrate deposits.
In fact, in 2012 the NGHP discovered that India’s offshore gas hydrate deposits are gargantuan: about 26 trillion cubic metres, according to Krishna Vishwanath, NGHP’s chief geologist. That’s roughly enough to fill one billion Olympic size swimming pools.
The NGHP is now planning a second expedition to look at how stable the hydrates are and assess how feasible it may be to extract methane from them. It will be challenging because the gas expands as it is piped up from high-pressure sea bottom environment to the surface.
If all goes well, a third expedition will be tasked with carrying out pilot production in the Indian deep-water environment, says Vishwanath.
It is important, he says, “to harness this elusive resource, which is still largely at a research stage, both globally and in India”.
Latin America lags behind
Asia leads the developing world in gas hydrate development. Africa and Latin America are interested, but less advanced with their investigations. There has been some research in countries such as Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, but it is still at an early stage.
Juan Diaz-Naveas, an oceanographer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso in Chile, says that at the moment, there is simply not enough data to judge if gas hydrates are important for his country.
“It might be the next big energy resource for Chile, but to be sure about that one really needs more detailed information on the gas hydrates we have beneath the Chilean continental margin,” he says.
Deposits of hydrates were charted off the west coast of Chile by a research cruise in 1998 using sonar. Yet the Chilean government does not have a clear position on the importance of the new resource, explains Diaz-Naveas. So far there has been no large-scale drilling in the area. A 2007 expedition collected some samples for study, but this was part of a generic field trip spearheaded by local academics with funding from the government, oil companies and the Chilean Geological Survey, rather than a specific search for gas hydrates.
“This year, in May, the Mining Committee of the Senate of the Chilean Congress invited me and two other people to give an overview on gas hydrates and on the possibilities to exploit them,” says Diaz-Naveas, explaining that the Committee then decided to ask the country’s president to develop a Chilean national programme to evaluate the potential of gas hydrates. There hasn’t been a response as of yet, he adds, though this may be due to recent political upheaval surrounding the end of President Sebastian Pinera’s term in office.
Uruguay’s National Oil Company ANCAP has been involved in some limited gas hydrates research and offshore exploration activities as well. And although at the moment the country is focused on finding conventional resources, ANCAP’s Juan Tomasini says. “We believe in the potential of gas hydrates offshore [of] Uruguay and in the important role that they may have in the future.”
One reason why developing nations hesitate to invest in gas hydrate research is the resource’s uncertain economic viability.
Basel Asmar, an analyst with HIS Consulting, an information consultancy based in Colorado, United States, points out that with shale gas technology causing conventional natural gas prices to plummet, hydrates still have to make an economic case that secures them a share of the global energy market.
“We still don’t have all the information about the productivity of methane hydrates,” says Asmar. “We don’t know whether we can do sustainable production, and whether this production will be technically feasible to use for longer time. We simply don’t know how many wells we need to drill to be able to compensate for conventional gas.”
There are clearly still plenty of ‘known unknowns’, but gas hydrates do at least have the potential to be the next game-changer for the energy sector. If exploration moves on to gas production, the geopolitical, economic and environmental repercussions will be enormous — and developing nations could assume new positions on a transformed global energy map.