Jackson School receives $58 million grant to study energy source

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The University announced Wednesday that the Jackson School of Geosciences received a $58 million grant to study methane hydrate, a frozen compound that could be used as an energy source.

The U.S. Department of Energy provided $41.2 million of the grant, with the remaining funds coming from research partners. UT is working with Ohio State University, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the U.S. Geological Survey over the next four years on the project.

Geological sciences professor Peter Flemings said while methane hydrate is a distant and currently expensive potential solution, the goal of the research is to drill for and study naturally forming methane hydrate to learn about its behavior, how it is formed and how to produce it.

“Dr. Flemings’ work has incredible potential for the energy sphere and reinforces the Jackson School and UT’s internationally recognized role in groundbreaking research,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said. 

Flemings said there is compacted methane and water in oceans that creates the methane hydrate.  

“If you combine methane and water, and you raise the pressure a lot, or you lower the temperature a lot, it turns into this solid structure that looks very much like ice,” Flemings said. “And what actually happens is that the water molecules form a structure that encloses methane molecules.”

According to Fleming, at atmospheric temperature, the methane is released and produces energy. He said there is estimated to be enough methane hydrate to power our current lifestyles for 200 years just in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The reason it’s important as an energy supply is because there’s a potentially large volume of it,” Flemings said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be economically easy to extract it or that we are going to use it in the near term.”

Kris Darnell, a geological sciences graduate student who researches lab-created methane hydrate with Flemings, said recreating the compound is difficult and expensive.

“So if we can go out to the field and bring it back to our laboratories, then it’s the best way to validate what we already think we know about the material,” Darnell said.  

Dylan Meyer, another one of Flemings’ graduate students, said this money will broaden the University’s current research in the area.

“The field of hydrates is so new right now that there’s almost unlimited possibilities of where the research can go,” Meyer said. “So getting this sort of funding will give us the opportunity to explore all sorts of avenues.”

While the field of research is relatively new, Flemings said that methane hydrate itself and the type of energy being produced is not.

“At the end of the day, the energy source is natural gas, but it’s a new source for natural gas in the sense that we have not used it to heat our houses with, or we haven’t produced it yet,” Flemings said.