Methane hydrate: Dirty fuel or energy saviour?

Methane hydrate Methane hydrate, or fire ice, is a highly energy-intensive fuel source

The world is addicted to hydrocarbons, and it's easy to see why - cheap, plentiful and easy to mine, they represent an abundant energy source to fuel industrial development the world over.

The side-effects, however, are potentially devastating - burning fossil fuels emits the CO2 linked to global warming.

And as reserves of oil, coal and gas become tougher to access, governments are looking ever harder for alternatives, not just to produce energy, but to help achieve the holy grail of all sovereign states - energy independence.

Some have discovered a potential saviour, locked away under deep ocean beds and vast swathes of permafrost. The problem is it's a hydrocarbon, but quite unlike any other we know.

Huge reserves

Otherwise known as fire ice, methane hydrate presents as ice crystals with natural methane gas locked inside. They are formed through a combination of low temperatures and high pressure, and are found primarily on the edge of continental shelves where the seabed drops sharply away into the deep ocean floor, as the US Geological Survey map shows.

Methane hydrate deposits

And the deposits of these compounds are enormous. "Estimates suggest that there is about the same amount of carbon in methane hydrates as there is in every other organic carbon store on the planet," says Chris Rochelle of the British Geological Survey.

In other words, there is more energy in methane hydrates than in all the world's oil, coal and gas put together.

By lowering the pressure or raising the temperature, the hydrate simply breaks down into water and methane - a lot of methane.

One cubic metre of the compound releases about 160 cubic metres of gas, making it a highly energy-intensive fuel. This, together with abundant reserves and the relatively simple process of releasing the methane, means a number of governments are getting increasingly excited about this massive potential source of energy.

Technical challenges

The problem, however, is accessing the hydrates.

Fuelling the future

Quite apart from reaching them at the bottom of deep ocean shelves, not to mention operating at low temperatures and extremely high pressure, there is the potentially serious issue of destabilising the seabed, which can lead to submarine landslides.

A greater potential threat is methane escape. Extracting the gas from a localised area of hydrates does not present too many difficulties, but preventing the breakdown of hydrates and subsequent release of methane in surrounding structures is more difficult.

And escaping methane has serious consequences for global warming - recent studies suggest the gas is 30 times more damaging than CO2.

These technical challenges are the reason why, as yet, there is no commercial-scale production of methane hydrate anywhere in the world. But a number of countries are getting close.

'Enormous potential'

The US, Canada and Japan have all ploughed millions of dollars into research and have carried out a number of test projects, while South Korea, India and China are also looking at developing their reserves.

The US launched a national research and development programme as far back as 1982, and by 1995 had completed its assessment of gas hydrate resources. It has since instigated pilot projects in the Blake Ridge area off the coast of South Carolina, on the Alaska North Slope and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, with five projects still running.

How methane hydrate is formed

"The department continues to do research and development to better understand this domestic resource... [which we see] as an exciting opportunity with enormous potential," says Chris Smith of the US Department of Energy.

The US has worked closely with Canada and Japan and there have been a number of successful production tests since 1998, most recently in Alaska in 2012 and, more significantly, in the Nankai Trough off the central coast of Japan in March last year - the first successful offshore extraction of natural gas from methane hydrate.

'Game changer'

Of all the countries actively researching methane hydrate, Japan has the greatest incentive. As Stephen O'Rourke, of energy consultants Wood Mackenzie, says: "It is the biggest importer of gas in the world and has the highest gas import bill as a result."

However, he points out that at just $120m (£71m; 87m euros) a year, the Japanese government's annual budget for research into gas hydrates is relatively low.

What is methane hydrate?

  • Methane hydrate is in the form of a 3D ice structure with natural gas locked inside
  • The substance looks like white ice, but it does not behave like it
  • If methane hydrate is either warmed or depressurised, it will break down into water and natural gas
  • The energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is immense
  • In the Gulf of Mexico, gas hydrate resources have recently been assessed at more than 6,000 trillion cubic feet

Source: US Department of Energy

The country's plans to establish commercial production by the end of this decade do, then, seem rather optimistic. But longer-term, the potential is huge.

"Methane hydrate makes perfect sense for Japan and could be a game changer," says Laszlo Varro of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Elsewhere, incentives to exploit the gas commercially are, for now, less pressing. The US is in the middle of a shale gas boom, Canada also has abundant shale resources, while Russia has huge natural gas reserves. In fact, Canada has put its research into methane hydrate on hold, and deferred any additional funding.

China and India, with their rampaging demand for energy, are a different story, but they are far behind in their efforts to develop hydrates.

"We have seen some recent progress, but we don't foresee commercial gas hydrate production before 2030," says Mr O'Rourke.

Indeed, the IEA has not included gas hydrates in its global energy projections for the next 20 years.

'Mad Max movie'

But if resources are exploited, as seems likely at some point in the future, the implications for the environment could be widespread.

It is not all bad news - one way to free the methane trapped in ice is pumping in CO2 to replace it, which could provide an answer to the as yet unsolved question of how to store this greenhouse gas safely.

But while methane hydrate may be cleaner than coal or oil, it is still a hydrocarbon, and burning methane creates CO2. Much depends of course on what it displaces, but this will only add to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Permafrost Methane hydrates are found mainly under ocean seabeds and Arctic permafrost

However, this may be a far better option than the alternative. In fact, we may have no choice.

As global temperatures rise, warming oceans and melting permafrost, the enormous reserves of methane trapped in ice may be released naturally. The consequences could be a catastrophic circular reaction, as warming temperatures release more methane, which in turn raises temperatures further.

"If all the methane gets out, we're looking at a Mad Max movie," says Mr Varro.

"Even using conservative estimates of methane [deposits], this could make all the CO2 from fossil fuels look like a joke.

"How long can the gradual warming go on before the methane gets out? Nobody knows, but the longer it goes on, the closer we get to playing Russian roulette."

Capturing the methane and burning it suddenly looks like rather a good idea. Maybe this particular hydrocarbon addiction could prove beneficial for us all.

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    ECB HACKED Via Twitter Victoria Fritz Business reporter, BBC News

    tweets: The @ecb says its website has been hacked. The culprits emailed demanding money in exchange for the addresses of ECB events attendees

     
  2.  
    RETAIL SALES 09:36: Breaking News
    shoppers carrying shopping bags on Oxford Street

    UK retail sales volumes in the second quarter were the strongest in 10 years, official figures have shown this morning. The month-on-month figure is up just 0.1% in June, but for the three months to the end of June sales were 1.6% higher. That's the strongest quarterly rise since early 2004, according to the Office for National Statistics.

     
  3.  
    CATTLE CLASS 09:20:
    Commuters travel on a crowded Northern Line tube train

    One for those who live and work in the nation's capital, this one. If you've been getting the London underground in the last few weeks and struggling to cope with the heat - maybe even nodding off on the central line on the way home - then this is why. According to the London Evening Standard temperatures on the Tube have hit "brutal" highs that would be illegal for the transport of livestock!

     
  4.  
    EASYJET TRADING 09:05:
    An EasyJet plane

    EasyJet says it expects its annual profits to be 14% higher this year, assuming there is no further disruption to flights over the next two months - that's in line with analyst expectations. The low-cost airline forecasts pre-tax profits for the year to September of between £545m and £570m. EasyJet said its third quarter trading performance was "solid" with sales up 8.6% percent to £1.2bn and capacity up 6.8%.

     
  5.  
    BRITVIC TRADING 08:56:
    Robinsons Orange Squash

    British soft drinks maker Britvic has said today it expects full-year operating profit to be near the top of its guidance. Fourth quarter trading has started well and it has achieved cost savings targets, it says. It expects operating profit to be between £148m and £156m. The upbeat assessment comes a year after Britvic rebuffed a merger proposal from rival AG Barr.

     
  6.  
    STANDARD RUMOURS 08:47:

    The rumours over Peter Sands and Sir John Peace shouldn't come as a major surprise given that last month Standard Chartered issued its second profit warning in two years. It wasn't a small warning either. The bank said first-half operating profits would be 20% lower than a year earlier, blaming a slump in income from its financial markets business. That came only three months after the Asia-focused lender reported its first fall in annual profits for a decade.

     
  7.  
    MARKET UPDATE 08:42:

    European markets have opened lower this morning as investors try to digest a raft of company announcements and economic data. In London, the biggest rise on the FTSE 100 so far is mining firm Antofagasta which is up 1.3% to 845p. On the fallers side Kingfisher leads on worse than expected second quarter trading, down nearly 7% to 312.7p.

    • The FTSE 100 is 0.37% lower at 6773.08
    • The German Dax is down 0.62% to 9693.22
    • France's Cac-40 is 0.51% lower to 4354.07
     
  8.  
    STANDARD RUMOURS 08:38:
    CEO of Standard Chartered, Peter Sands

    A rather terse statement from Standard Chartered this morning, a UK bank that does most of its business in Asia. Some rumours suggest they may be looking to replace chief executive Peter Sands and chairman Sir John Peace. The board is "united in its support of both Peter Sands and Sir John Peace," it says. "No succession planning is taking place as a result of recent investor pressure."

     
  9.  
    WINTER STORM COMPENSATION 08:28: BBC Radio 4

    "Part of what we are announcing today is that the companies are paying out money to charities that work on the ground helping with these situations [the winter storms]," Maxine Frerk, senior partner at Ofgem, tells the Today prgramme. She adds both SSE and UKPN have "learned lessons", particularly around communication both through call centres as well as on the internet and social media.

     
  10.  
    WINTER STORM COMPENSATION 08:19:

    Crucially, Ofgem says the extra £3.3m SSE and UKPN are paying out is going to organisations like the British Red Cross rather than back to customers who were left without power over Christmas. What is interesting is Ofgem has decided to up the minimum compensation for customers who are left without power for 24 hours from £27 to £70. The regulator is also upping the cap on compensation payments from £216 to £700.

     
  11.  
    MARKET UPDATE 08:07:

    Tokyo stocks lost early gains to finish down 0.29%. The benchmark Nikkei 225 index lost 44.14 points to close at 15,284.42. Geopolitical worries about Gaza curbed risk appetites. Hong Kong shares ended the morning session 0.39% higher after preliminary figures showed an index of Chinese manufacturing activity hit an 18-month high in June.

     
  12.  
    WINTER STORM COMPENSATION Via Twitter Adam Parsons Business Correspondent

    tweets: OFGEM says SSE and UKP "could have done more to get customers reconnected faster" during winter storms

     
  13.  
    WAGES 07:53: Radio 5 live

    "Wages are still flat," says Paul Mawdsley, a recruiter who runs Mawdsley Consultancy, talking to 5 live. "There isn't a great demand in the labour market yet," so that's keeping salaries down. He's also seeing a "dire shortage" of engineers in such areas as pneumatics and hydraulics. Not enough people are being trained.

     
  14.  
    INTEREST RATES 07:50:
    Bank of England Governor Mark Carney

    Meanwhile, the Guardian thinks the Bank governor is worried about low interest rates leading households to take on too much debt. As you might imagine that puts them on either side of the when-are-interest-rates-going-to-rise guessing game that is fast becoming a national obsession.

     
  15.  
    ENERGY PROBE 07:40:

    The CMA's probe will see whether energy companies should be wholesalers as well as selling to retail customers (you). The gas market appears to be working better than the electricity market, and they'll try to find out why. They won't be looking at big business customers because that market looks fine, the CMA says.

     
  16.  
    INTEREST RATES 07:31:

    Bank of England governor Mark Carney is in all the newspapers today following his speech to the Commonwealth business conference yesterday. The FT interprets Mr Carney's speech as revealing deep concerns about household indebtedness and the effect an interest rate rise will have on households' ability to service their debts.

     
  17.  
    UNILEVER RESULTS 07:23:

    Unilever, the food giant, has said first half net profit rose to 3bn euros (£2.37bn) from 2.68bn euros even as sales fell. Its cost savings plan is working well, it said. Excluding businesses sold or otherwise disposed of, sales rose 3.7%.

     
  18.  
  19.  
    WINTER STORM COMPENSATION 07:19:
    SSE logo at the SSE Training Centre in Perth

    SSE and UK Power Networks (IKPN) are to pay an additional £3.3m for delays in getting power back up and running to households in southern England following last winter's storms. That's on top of the £4.7m the two energy companies are paying out to customers under guaranteed standards and in goodwill payments. It brings the total paid out by the two companies to £8m.

     
  20.  
    ENERGY PROBE 07:04: Breaking News

    The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will carry out an independent investigation to see if there are any features of the energy market which "prevent, restrict or distort competition and, if so, what action might be taken to remedy them," it says. It will report back by Christmas day 2015.

     
  21.  
    INTEREST RATES 06:56: Radio 5 live

    Kathleen Brooks of FOREX.com thinks January will be the time for a rate increase from the Bank of England. Maybe a 25 basis point increase to 0.75%, she says. Bank governor, Mark Carney, said yesterday there may be more labour supply than previously thought. Wages growth is thus being held back.

     
  22.  
    RUSSIAN SANCTIONS 06:44: BBC Radio 4
    Russian President Vladimir Putin

    Kathleen Brooks has now popped up on the Today programme. She says sanctions against Russia "are toothless at this point....Russia has a lot of energy that the West wants." She adds divisions in the West over energy policy have been exposed by the fact "the UK and France have a spat about sanctions and that just plays into Vladimir Putin's hands." Ms Brooks says there have "also been rumours that Russia has been unofficially propping up the rouble. The sanctions are not going to hurt the European Union's energy links to Russia."

     
  23.  
    ENERGY PRICES 06:31: Radio 5 live

    If you have to steel yourself with a nice cup of sweet tea before opening your latest energy bill, spare a thought for Nigel and Linda Brotherton, who were told by Npower that their monthly direct debit was going to increase from £87 to £53,480,062. Npower has apologised and the incorrect bill has been cancelled. "It's a massive shock," he tells 5 live.

     
  24.  
    GLAXOSMITHKLINE 06:24: Radio 5 live
    gsk

    David Buik of Panmure Gordon is helping us digest the GlaxoSmithKline results on 5 live. "Sales to China is only about 3% of its total business," and so the bribery scandal there is an unwelcome distraction.

     
  25.  
    ROUBLE 06:15: Radio 5 live

    Kathleen Brooks of FOREX.com is on 5 live talking about Russia. The Russia rouble has been "resilient" bearing in mind the new sanctions against Russia. "They are able to shrug off geopolitical risk quite quickly," she says. President Putin may be "breathing a sigh of relief," she adds.

     
  26.  
    POUND 06:01: Radio 5 live

    The pound buys about 1.27 euros, its strongest in nearly two years - don't get excited that's not what you'll get from your local foreign exchange. Still, Kathleen Brooks, a research director at FOREX.com, is on 5 live talking about it. The strong pound has helped ease inflation, she says. "Over the period of the financial crisis we had sky high inflation," she adds. The recovery is consumer-driven, which is aided by a stronger pound, which means cheaper imports.

     
  27.  
    06:00: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Good morning! Get in touch via email at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or on twitter @BBCBusiness

     
  28.  
    06:00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Good morning folks. So what's new? Facebook has posted some stonking profits for its second quarter, the US has - just - lifted its ban on flights into Tel Aviv and it's Thursday, so General Motors has decided to recall another couple of hundred thousand cars overnight. There's plenty more to come, stay with us.

     

Features

  • Shinji Mikamo's father's watchTime peace

    The story of the watch that survived Hiroshima


  • Hamas rally in the West Bank village of Yatta, 2006Hamas hopes

    Why the Palestinian group won't back down yet


  • Mary WayaQueen of the court

    Woman who beat "fat" jibes to turn Malawi into netball champions


From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • A man holds a sign which reads Bring Back Our GirlsHARDtalk Watch

    Why there is still hope and optimism for the rescue of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.