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University of Texas to Lead $58M Methane Hydrate Research Project in GOM

The University of Texas at Austin (UT) is leading a research consortium that is getting $58 million to study methane hydrate under the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

The grant is made up of $41.27 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with the remainder coming from industry and research partners. It is one of the largest grants that UT has received, the university said.

In addition to UT's Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) at the Jackson School of Geosciences, the study includes researchers from The Ohio State University, Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Methane hydrate is an ice-like solid compound that forms in low-temperature and high-pressure environments where molecules of methane, a chief constituent of natural gas, are trapped within a lattice structure of water molecules.

Estimates vary on the amount of energy that could be produced from methane hydrate worldwide, but the potential is thought to be huge. In the GOM, where the researchers will be taking samples, there is estimated to be about 7,000 Tcf of methane in sand-dominated reservoirs near the seafloor. That is more than 250 times the amount of natural gas that was used in the United States in 2013.

Methane hydrate is stable under high pressure and low temperatures but separates into gas and water quickly when warmed or depressurized, causing the methane to bubble away. This poses technical and scientific challenges to those working to eventually produce energy from the deepwater deposits.

"The heart of this project is to acquire intact samples so that we can better understand how to produce these deposits," said UTIG research scientist Peter Flemings, the project's principal investigator.

The four-year project will be the first in the offshore United States to take core samples of methane hydrate from sandstone reservoirs, Flemings said, a delicate task that requires transporting samples from great depths to the surface without depressurizing them.

Carlos Santamarina, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a leading methane hydrate expert, said pressure core sampling is vital to gaining a better scientific understanding of hydrate-bearing sediments.

"The technique is like taking a specimen inside a pressure cooker from thousands of feet below sea level, and bringing it to the surface without ever depressurizing the pressure cooker," said Santamarina. "With this technology, the sediment preserves its structure and allows us to determine all the engineering properties needed for design."

It is not currently economically or technically feasible to produce substantial amounts of energy from methane hydrate, but Flemings said that could change as the science improves and world energy demand increases. "This could be analogous to gas or shale oil 20 or 30 years ago," he said. "None of us thought we were going to produce any hydrocarbons out of shales then."

Santamarina said this project is critical for the United States to maintain world leadership in methane hydrate research. Other countries with high energy demands or limited resources -- Japan, South Korea, India and China -- also have active research programs.

In addition to its potential as an energy resource, methane hydrate may play a role in past and future climate change, and better understanding the marine deposits will further scientific understanding of these processes. "I think methane hydrates are one of the most fascinating materials on the planet," Flemings said. "They store energy, they look like ice but burn, they may impact climate, and they may play a role in submarine landslides."

Since the passage of the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000, DOE has led a national methane hydrate research and development (R&D) program in collaboration with six other federal agencies, universities, industry and international R&D programs.

Prior marine investigations, primarily through DOE-supported GOM joint industry partnerships, confirmed methods for safe drilling in hydrate-bearing sediments and documented the occurrence of high-quality gas hydrate reservoirs in areas of the GOM such as Green Canyon and Walker Ridge (see Daily GPI, May 15, 2013; May 15, 2009). However, significant research remains to better define resource volumes and accurately assess the production potential of methane hydrates in deepwater settings, DOE said.

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