Exploring Gas Hydrates as a Future Energy Source

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In the past decade, the development of the Barnett, Eagle Ford, Marcellus, and other shales has dominated the national consciousness regarding natural gas. But in Alaska, another form of natural gas has been the focus of research for decades—methane hydrate.

Also known as natural gas hydrate, these unique hydrocarbons have solid crystalline structures filled with super-concentrated methane gas. Some estimates put the amount of natural gas locked up worldwide in hydrate formations as equal to the amount of natural gas available in all other known natural gas resources.

In Alaska, a partnership between Federal and State governmental agencies and the Government of Japan formed to explore the gas hydrate potential and how it could be recovered. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Tim Collett, an originator of the partnership, saw Alaska as the perfect place for the research.

Enormous Potential in Alaska

Burning Gas Hydrate

“Between the rich deposits of gas hydrate and the presence of many potential partners, Alaska was an ideal location to begin studying gas hydrate,” said Collett. “More than 35 years later, our cooperative research partnerships are still going strong.”

Currently, the research is focused on the Alaska North Slope, where a 2008 USGS assessment of undiscovered gas hydrate resources estimated that 85.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be recovered using today’s technology. Diane Shellenbaum, from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, sees an opportunity for significant progress in the long-term goal of establishing the commercial viability of producing permafrost-associated gas hydrates.

“Gas hydrates are an enormous potential resource on the North Slope of Alaska, one that could provide a significant source of energy and support for Alaskans and our country in the future,” said Shellenbaum. “We’re excited to be part of leading-edge research that has real potential to make a significant contribution to the world’s energy needs and especially to the lives of future Alaskans.”

Ray Boswell, from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), sees a similar opportunity. He and his colleagues at NETL are focused on developing national-scale research and production capabilities for gas hydrate.

“We at NETL are very interested in advancing the science and technology needed to properly assess the implications of naturally occurring gas hydrate on the global environment and on future energy supply options,” said Boswell.

After the assessment, the research is now looking at production methods and refining understanding of the geology at places where hydrates form on land. This is a priority for Norihiro Okinaka, with the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, NETL’s international partner on the Alaska North Slope Project.

“We are applying and improving technologies for oil and gas fields for the exploration and field verification of gas hydrate production techniques here on the North Slope so we can refine our marine exploration as well,” said Okinaka. “If successful, Japan can dramatically raise its self-sufficiency ratio if it can develop marine energy. This is our final target.”

Coring and Sampling
Scientists examine gas hydrate samples cut from the core drilled at the Mt. Elbert test site. Some of these samples were then squeezed to extract and examine pore water samples and analyze for thermal properties. Photograph credit: Tim Collett, USGS

Science at the Ground Floor

The USGS was in on the ground floor with this research project and continues to provide its partners with valuable science for future production and development research.

“USGS provides solid science, continuity, and the ability to provide the high-level expertise and long-term focus that does not exist anywhere else,” said Shellenbaum.

Mr. Okinaka agrees, “As the United States and Japan collaborate toward [an] onshore, long-term production test in Alaska, USGS’s vast amount of knowledge [about the] Alaska North Slope is very helpful for managing the program.”

“Working with global scientific leaders—including those in the USGS, such as Dr. Tim Collett—on the many challenging scientific issues posed by gas hydrate, not only in Alaska but throughout the world, has been one of my favorite parts of this project,” said Boswell.

Drill Rig at the Mt. Elbert Test Site
In 2007, a partnership of government and industry scientists assembled at Mt. Elbert in the North Slope of Alaska. Using industry equipment, a well was drilled and a core was extracted. The core was then cut into samples and analyzed. Photograph credit: Tim Collett, USGS