GULF OF MEXICO - Working aboard a research
vessel in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, a team of
scientists will closely examine potential sites where
test wells can be drilled to obtain samples of a unique
source of energy. Researchers will be looking for
something called "the ice that burns," or methane
hydrates, an icy substance that releases a flammable gas
when it melts.
Since their discovery in the laboratory nearly 200
years ago, crystal-like compounds called "clathrates"
have fascinated scientists. One clathrate in particular,
methane hydrate, is gaining considerable attention
because of its enormous potential as a source of
Two cruises aboard the research vessel Gyre,
one this past spring and another in August, focus on the
Keathley Canyon and Atwater Valley regions of the Gulf -
large areas of the outer continental shelf off the
coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Both cruises support a
larger effort, the Gulf of Mexico Joint Industry
Project, funded by the Department of Energy's National
Methane Hydrate R&D Program.
The U.S. Geological Survey, also with DOE funding,
conducted the first 2-week cruise in May. Using sound
waves to image the sedimentary layers of the sea floor,
researchers profiled the two regions to determine the
likely presence and concentration of hydrates.
During the second cruise, scheduled for August,
scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory will
refine the search and use a Deep-Towed
Acoustics/Geophysics System to make higher resolution
measurements in selected locations.
Information collected this year will be used to
prioritize sites and narrow the geographic boundaries
for drilling in 2004 and 2005. When the data is combined
from both phases of the project - this year's
evaluations and future drilling experiments - it will
comprise the most comprehensive data set to date of
deepwater hydrate sediments.
A better understanding of methane hydrate could have
A potential energy
source. Methane, the principal component of
natural gas, is the potential energy source in methane
hydrate. Huge amounts of methane hydrate underlie our
oceans and polar permafrost. By some estimates, the
energy locked up in methane hydrate deposits is more
than twice the global reserves of all conventional
gas, oil, and coal deposits combined. A safe and
economical way to recover hydrates could provide a
vast supply of a clean energy for the future.
safety. As we venture into deeper water to
drill for conventional gas and oil, we are more likely
to encounter methane hydrates accidentally. Many
researchers anticipate that drilling through hydrates
may pose a hazard to the stability of the well, the
platform anchors, tethers, or even entire platforms.
To ensure drilling safety, we must understand the
geological environment and physical and chemical
conditions under which hydrates exist, and be able to
predict their distribution and concentration before
global climate change. Methane is a
greenhouse gas, more than 20 times more efficient at
trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Large releases of methane from decomposing methane
hydrate have been linked to episodes of intense global
warming that occurred tens of millions of years ago.
Although not a specific focus of these cruises,
improved understanding of the stability of marine
methane hydrate deposits may aid scientists studying
global climate change, and help ensure the stability
of hydrate deposits as we seek to produce methane as
an energy source.
The Joint Industry Project is a 4-year collaborative
effort to develop technology and collect data to
characterize naturally occurring gas hydrates in the
deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Industry partners in the Joint
Industry Project include ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips,
Total E&P USA, Schlumberger, Halliburton Energy
Services, the Minerals Management Service (Gulf of
Mexico Region), the Japan National Oil Corporation, and
India's Reliance Industries. Academic collaborators
include the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Scripps
Institute of Oceanography, and Texas A&M University
through the Joint Oceanographic Institute.
For more information on the Joint Industry Project
and the National Methane Hydrate R&D Program, visit the
National Energy Technology Laboratory's Hydrate website