You are on page 1of 4

How Frozen Fuel Works

All by itself, methane isn't very exciting. It's a colorless, odorless gas and the simplest member of the alkane series of hydrocarbons. Its biggest claim to fame is that, as the main constituent of natural gas, it's useful as a source of energy. Recently, however, geologists have discovered a type of methane that has piqued their curiosity. Part of its unusual character is how it exists in its natural state -- trapped inside a cage of ice. Even more intriguing is how much of this frozen methane seems to be locked away in the Earth's crust. Some estimates indicate that as much as 700 quadrillion (700 × 1015) cubic feet (20 quadrillion cubic meters) of methane are encased in ice and trapped in seafloor sediments all over the world .That's twice as much carbon as Earth's other fossil fuels combined. The discovery of this new type of methane, what scientists call methane hydrate, has led to two important questions. The first is pragmatic: Will it burn like ordinary methane? It turns out it will. If you take a piece of methane hydrate -- it looks like hard-packed snow -- and touch a lighted match to it, the sample will burn with a reddish flame. And if that's the case, it could be used to heat homes, fuel cars and generally power energy-hungry nations such as Japan, the United States, India and China. Recent data suggest that just 1 percent of Earth's methane hydrate deposits could yield enough natural gas to meet America's energy needs for 170,000 years The second question is partly an ethical consideration: Should we, as a global community trying fervently to develop clean, renewable energy, embrace one of the fossil fuels that got us into trouble in the first place? Science can't answer that question. It can, however, reveal the challenges and risks that face countries hoping to take advantage of methane hydrate. One of the most significant challenges is finding efficient ways to extract the frozen fuel. More troubling are potential catastrophes -- ranging from massive underwater landslides to a runaway greenhouse effect -- related to methane mining. In this article, we'll explore all the positives and negatives of methane hydrate. We'll look at its relatively brief history, as well as how it fits in some possible future scenarios. And, of course, we'll examine the basic science behind this so-called "flammable ice." Let's start with some chemistry.

Fire and Ice: The Chemistry of Methane Hydrate

© Representation of a methane molecule, with the blue sphere signifying carbon and the four red spheres signifying hydrogen
Frozen fuel is the catchy name for a family of substances known as gas hydrates. The gas in question is natural gas, a mixture of hydrocarbons, such as methane, propane, butane and pentane. Of these, methane is by far the most common component and one of the most-studied compounds in chemistry. Like all hydrocarbons, methane contains only two elements -- carbon and hydrogen. It is an example of a saturated hydrocarbon, or a molecule composed entirely of single bonds and therefore the maximum number of hydrogen atoms allowed. The general formula for saturated hydrocarbons is CnH2n+2. Methane only has one carbon atom, so its chemical formula is CH4. Chemists describe this shape as a tetrahedron. Methane is a colorless, odorless, combustible gas produced by bacterial decomposition of plant and animal matter. It forms in a process shared by all fossil fuels. First, marine plants and animals die and fall to the seafloor. Next, mud and other seafloor sediments cover the decomposing organisms. The sediments put a great deal of pressure on the organic matter and begin to compress it. This compression, combined with high temperatures, breaks down the carbon bonds in the organic matter, transforming it into oil and natural gas. Clathrate Compounds Methane hydrate is a clathrate, a chemical substance made of one compound nested inside another. The word comes from the Latin clatratus, meaning "bars" or "lattice." One compound serves as a host, the other as a guest. In the case of methane hydrate, water is the host and methane is the guest. For this reason, chemists sometimes refer to clathrates as host-guest complexes. Generally, this methane -- what geologists describe as "conventional" methane -- is located beneath the Earth's surface. To get to it, workers must drill through rock and sediment and tap into the methane deposits to release the gas. Then they pump it to the surface, where it's transported through pipes across the country. Methane can also form unconventionally if the sediments producing it are located about 1,640 feet (500 meters) below the ocean surface. The near-freezing temperatures and high pressure of these conditions causes the methane to become encased in ice. The methane doesn't bond chemically with the water. Instead, each tetrahedral methane molecule sits inside a crystalline shell made of ice. This unique substance is known as methane hydrate, and as soon as it reaches warmer temperatures and lower pressures, the ice melts away, leaving behind pure methane. Geologists discovered naturally occurring methane hydrate only recently, but chemists have known about it for years, as we'll see in the next section.

A Brief History of Methane Hydrate

Gas hydrate chunks recovered from the Gulf of Mexico in 2002
The history of gas hydrates can be traced back to Humphrey Davy, a chemist from Cornwall, England, who identified chlorine as an element in 1810. Davy and his assistant, Michael Faraday, continued to work with chlorine throughout the early 1800s, mixing the green gas with water and cooling the mixture to low temperatures. It's very likely that Davy observed the strange solid that resulted as chlorine atoms became encased in ice crystals, but Faraday gets official credit for the discovery. In 1823, Faraday issued a report describing the strange substance and called it chlorine clathrate hydrate. Other types of clathrates, each involving a guest compound locked inside the lattice structure of a host, were soon discovered, but they remained a laboratory curiosity. Then, in the 1930s, natural-gas miners began to complain of an icelike material clogging pipelines exposed to cold temperatures. Scientists determined that this material was not pure ice, but ice wrapped around methane. They wasted no time trying to find ways to prevent hydrates from forming and turned primarily to chemicals, such as methanol or monoethylene glycol. Since then, mining companies have added these materials to their natural-gas pipelines to inhibit hydrate formation.

In the 1960s, scientists discovered that methane hydrate, or "solid natural gas," existed in the Messoyakha gas field in western Siberia. This was significant because naturally occurring gas hydrates had never been found before. Geologists and chemists arrived in the vast basin and began to study the conditions in which the hydrates were forming. They found that sub-permafrost sediments were rich in hydrates and began to look for similar deposits in other high-latitude regions. Soon, another team of researchers found methane hydrate in sediments buried deep below the North Slope of Alaska. Based on these early findings, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory conducted extensive research between 1982 and 1992, revealing that methane hydrate deposits could be found in offshore sediments as well. Suddenly, what had once been a curiosity and an industrial nuisance looked like it might be a significant resource. In the mid-1990s, Japan and India took the lead in methane hydrate research, with the goal of finding more deposits and developing ways to extract the trapped methane economically. Scientists have since discovered methane hydrate deposits in numerous locations, including the Mackenzie River delta in Canada and the Nankai Trough off the coast of Japan. Up next, we'll consider the impact methane hydrate could have on the world's energy supply.

The Potential of Frozen Fuel

Major methane hydrate fields
Once scientists began looking for methane hydrate deposits, they weren't disappointed. They found them beneath Arctic permafrost and beneath the seafloor, especially in areas where one tectonic plate slides over another. These regions are known as subduction zones because the edge of one plate moves beneath another. For example, off the coast of Washington and Oregon, the Juan de Fuca plate is sliding underneath the North American plate. Like a piece of wood being drawn across the blade of a plane, the sediments, including hydrates, of the Juan de Fuca plate are removed by the rocky crust of the North American plate. This creates a ridge of hydrates that runs parallel to the coast. Hydrate deposits have also been found in regions where large ocean currents meet. Blake Ridge is a formation located off the coast of South Carolina, in water ranging from 6,562 to 15,748 feet (2,000 to 4,800 meters) deep. Geologists believe the ridge formed during the Oligocene epoch, about 33.7 to 23.8 million years ago. The Greenland Sea opened up during this time, allowing huge amounts of cold, dense water to flow south along the Atlantic coast. As this cold water ran headlong into warm water being carried northward on the Gulf Stream, the currents slowed down and dropped large amounts of sediment. Organic material buried in these sediments eventually gave rise to a large amount of methane hydrate. How much of this frozen fuel exists at Blake Ridge and other sites around the world? Some estimates put the amount of methane locked away in hydrates at anywhere from 100,000 trillion to 300,000,000 trillion cubic feet (2,832 trillion to 8,495,054 trillion cubic meters). Compare that to the 13,000 trillion cubic feet (368 trillion cubic meters) of conventional natural gas reserves remaining on the planet, and you can understand why jaws in the scientific community have dropped [source: Collett]. Of course, finding the hydrate deposits is one thing. As we'll see in the next section, getting them out -- and doing it safely -- is another thing entirely.

The Risky Business of Mining Methane Hydrate
The potential rewards of releasing methane from gas hydrate fields must be balanced with the risks. And the risks are significant. Let's start first with challenges facing mining companies and their workers. Most methane hydrate deposits are located in seafloor sediments. That means drilling rigs must be able to reach down through more than 1,600 feet (500 meters) of water and then, because hydrates are generally located far underground, another several thousand feet before they can begin extraction. Hydrates also tend to form along the lower margins of continental slopes, where the seabed falls away from the relatively shallow shelf toward the abyss. The roughly sloping seafloor makes it difficult to run pipeline. Moving Mountains One of the largest landslides in history didn't occur on land, but underwater, just off the coast of Norway. It also didn't occur in recent history, but in the Holocene epoch, about 8,000 years ago. Known as the Storegga Submarine Landslide, the event caused massive amounts of sediments to slide about 497 miles (800 kilometers) down the continental slope. This in turn triggered a mega-tsunami, perhaps 82 feet (25 meters) high, that struck Norway and Scotland. In 1998, Russian researchers discovered an unstable hydrate field near the site of the Storegga slide. Now scientists believe that a rapid decomposition of hydrates, related to temperature and pressure changes coming at the end of the last ice age, destabilized the sediments and caused the landslide. Even if you can situate a rig safely, methane hydrate is unstable once it's removed from the high pressures and low temperatures of the deep sea. Methane begins to escape even as it's being transported to the surface. Unless there's a way to prevent this leakage of natural gas, extraction won't be efficient. It will be a bit like hauling up well water using a pail riddled with holes. Believe it or not, this leakage may be the least of the worries. Many geologists suspect that gas hydrates play an important role in stabilizing the seafloor. Drilling in these oceanic deposits could destabilize the seabed, causing vast swaths of sediment to slide for miles down the continental slope. Evidence suggests that such underwater landslides have occurred in the past (see sidebar), with devastating consequences. The movement of so much sediment would certainly trigger massive tsunamis similar to those seen in the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. But perhaps the biggest concern is how methane hydrate mining could affect global warming. Scientists already know that hydrate deposits naturally release small amounts of methane. The gas works itself skyward -- either bubbling up through permafrost or ocean water -- until it's released into the atmosphere. Once methane is in the atmosphere, it becomes a greenhouse gas even more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping solar radiation. Some experts fear that drilling in hydrate deposits could cause catastrophic releases of methane that would greatly accelerate global warming. Does that make methane from hydrate fields off-limits? This is the question scientists from all over the world are trying to answer.

The Future of Frozen Fuel
In 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a research program that would ultimately allow commercial production of methane from gas hydrate deposits by 2015. Three years later, Congress authorized funding through the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000. The Interagency Coordination Committee (ICC), a coalition of six government agencies, has been advancing research on several fronts. Much of what we know about the basic

science of methane hydrate -- how it forms, where it forms and what role it plays, both in seafloor stabilization and global warming -- has come from the ICC's research. Interesting ideas about how to extract the methane from hydrates efficiently are also emerging. Some experts propose a technique in which miners pump hot water down a drill hole to melt the hydrate and release the trapped methane. As the methane escapes, it is pumped to the seafloor through a companion drill hole. From there, submarine pipelines carry the natural gas ashore. Unfortunately, such pipelines would need to travel over difficult underwater terrain. One solution is to build a production facility on the seafloor so it is situated near the hydrate deposits. As methane escapes from the heated sediments, workers in the plant would refreeze the gas to form "clean" methane hydrate. Submarines would then tow the frozen fuel in huge storage tanks to shallower waters, where the methane could be extracted and transported safely and efficiently. Is all of this necessary? Won't renewable energy sources make it a waste of time to pursue another nonrenewable fossil fuel so vigorously? Realistically, fossil fuels will still be an important component of the world's overall energy mix for decades to come. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), total U.S. natural gas consumption is expected to increase from about 22 trillion cubic feet (0.622 trillion cubic meters) today to about 27 trillion cubic feet (0.76 trillion cubic meters) in 2030. Global natural gas consumption is expected to increase to 182 trillion cubic feet (5.15 trillion cubic meters) over the same period [source: EIA]. Tapping into the methane locked away in hydrates will obviously play a key role in meeting that demand. That means the frozen fuel from methane hydrate can buy more time as scientists search for alternatives to power our planet. Think of it as an important stepping-stone in our transition to cleaner, greener energy sources. The light bulb that has lit up our homes since the 1800s is officially on its way out. The inefficient incandescent, which loses most of its energy as heat, has fallen out of favor with the financially and ecologically concerned; starting in 2012, U.S. residents won't be able to buy one even if they want to [source: Linden]. The government is taking the little energy suckers off the market. The prime replacement for the incandescent light bulb is the higher-efficiency compact fluorescent, or CFL. The CFL, though, has its own problems, primarily the inclusion of toxic mercury in the design and a strange, sometimes unpleasant color that even gives some people headaches. Enter the LED, or light-emitting diode. LEDs have been around for many years -- they light up digital clocks, Christmas lights, flashlights and traffic signals, and they tell you when you've got a new voicemail message on your cell phone. But as far as household lighting goes, LEDs have never really taken off. Certain drawbacks have kept companies from manufacturing them in standard, replacement-size light bulb form. In the last few years, though, these LED replacement bulbs, the kind you just screw into a lamp like you do an incandescent bulb, have become much more common -- which is to say a fair number of businesses and a handful of households are using them. In some ways, LED light bulbs are a perfect technology. But they still have a way to go before they become the higher-efficiency bulb of choice. In this article, we'll find out why. We'll look into how they work, why they're a desirable lighting choice, and what will have to change before the rest of us start using them in our bedside lamps. Let's begin with the basics: How does an LED produce light?

How LED Light Bulbs Work

LED Light Bulb Basics
Energy-efficiency has been popular since at least 1918, when this poster was published by the U.S. government. An LED is what's called a "solid-state lighting" technology, or SSL. Basically, instead of emitting light from a vacuum (as in an incandescent bulb) or a gas (as in a CFL), an SSL emits light from a piece of solid matter. In the case of a traditional LED, that piece of matter is a semiconductor. Stated very simply, an LED produces light when electrons move around within its semiconductor structure. A semiconductor is made of a positively charged and a negatively charged component. The positive layer has "holes" -- openings for electrons; the negative layer has free electrons floating around in it. When an electric charge strikes the semiconductor, it activates the flow of electrons from the negative to the positive layer. Those excited electrons emit light as they flow into the positively charged holes. The problem with LEDs as primary home lighting is that while they emit a lot of light, the structure of an LED causes some of that light to get trapped inside. So an LED bulb has traditionally been dimmer than an incandescent bulb, and most people want their lamps and ceiling fixtures to be pretty bright. Recently, though, LEDs bulbs have brightened up. You can now find LED replacement bulbs that emit light equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent light bulb, which makes them a viable technology for basic lighting needs at home. And in some ways, they're much more than viable: An LED replacement light bulb called GeoBulb emits 60-watt equivalent light using 7.5 watts of power. And in other ways, less than viable: A 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb costs about $100. Which brings us to the pros and cons of LED light bulbs.

Advantages of LED Light Bulbs

Some LED bulbs can last up to 50,000 hours. While you won't find LEDs in too many household lighting fixtures these days, there are a couple of good reasons to want them there in greater numbers. First, there's the reduced energy use. The LED method of producing light loses far less energy to heat than do other lighting technologies. It's dramatically more efficient than the vacuum/filament method used in incandescent bulbs -- sometimes around 85 percent more efficient; and it's even about 5 percent more efficient than the CFL's plasma-tube approach [source: Taub]. A single light fixture stocked with a 60-watt incandescent bulb consumes about 525 kWh of electricity in a year; put a GeoBulb LED bulb in that light fixture, and the annual energy use is more like 65 kWh [source: Sundance]. The annual CO2 reduction is in the hundreds of pounds for a single lamp. But energy-efficiency is just part of the story. The other part is time-efficiency: You could go 20 years without having to change an LED light bulb. Solid-state lights like LEDs are more stable light sources than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, and the difference is startling: A typical incandescent bulb lasts about 750 hours; a Geobulb lasts 30,000 hours [source: Sundance].

Some LED bulbs last up to 50,000 hours [source: Linden]. Because of that time benefit, things get a bit more muddled when you get into the cost issue. A 60-watt LED replacement bulb runs in the area of $100, and even the lower-output versions, used for things like spot lighting, will cost between $40 and $80. That's compared to a $1 incandescent and a $2 fluorescent bulb. The reality is, even at $100 for a single bulb, LEDs will end up saving money in the long run, because you only need one every decade or two and you spend less money on home lighting, which can account for about 7 percent of your electric bill [source: Greener Choices]. But the upfront cost is still pretty prohibitive. Lots of people simply can't spend a thousand dollars for 10 light bulbs. The other primary LED issue -- degradation in the color of the light to something bluish -- has been solved in newer models. LEDs can produce the same soft, white light as a regular bulb. (Although Energy Star does recommend looking for the Energy Star label when shopping for LED bulbs, since the organization tests for color stability as part of its certification criteria.) So price is really the only problem with LED light bulbs right now. But that could change pretty soon.

Concerns about LED Light Bulbs

LEDs are poised to take over household lighting. LEDs are poised to take over household lighting. Or so believe lots of research scientists and some big lighting companies. Philips, for one, has stopped putting money into research and development of fluorescent technologies and is now putting all of its energy into LEDs [source: Taub]. General Electric devotes half its R&D budget to solid-state lighting [source: GE]. If you look at what the scientists are saying about LEDs, the picture does look pretty rosy. Breakthroughs are popping up at a breakneck pace. Two recent developments are predicting a major price reduction in the high-efficiency, long-lasting bulbs. One has to do with the light-loss issue in bulb design. One way to release more of an LED's light is to put microscopic holes in the casing. The problem is that making all of those holes is time-consuming and expensive. A team of researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland has found a new way to do it, though. They've found that using a nano-imprint lithography technique can reduce the time and expense of putting billions of holes in tiny LEDs. Another team of scientists, this one at the University of Cambridge in England, approached the issue from the supply side. They've found a new, less-expensive way to create gallium-nitride semiconductor material, a common basis of LED lighting. At present, gallium-nitride semiconductors are grown on expensive sapphire wafers. The new way uses silicon wafers and affects a dramatic reduction in manufacturing cost for the LEDs. And what's more, these new gallium-nitride-based bulbs are rated at 100,000 hours, are three times more efficient than CFLs, and should cost less than $3 a piece [source: Evans]. Gallium-nitride LED light bulbs could be on the market by 2012. The lighting industry in general expects LED costs to come down quickly. Lighting Science Group, a company that develops and manufactures LED lighting, estimates a 50 percent price reduction within two years [source: Linden]. Businesses, which have much more extreme lighting expenses and so can recoup upfront bulb expenditures very quickly, will likely flock to LEDs with that kind of price drop. However, homeowners may wait until the bulbs hit the $3 mark the Cambridge researchers are aiming for. For more information about LED light bulbs and related topics, look over the links on the next page.