UT geologists prepare to drill for potential energy resource

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A potential new energy source looks like ice, burns when lit and is found thousands of feet beneath the Gulf of Mexico. This substance is called methane hydrate, a solid composed of water and methane that forms at high pressures and low temperatures. 

Peter Flemings, research scientist at UT’s Institute for Geophysics, leads an $80 million project to study methane deposits in the Gulf of Mexico as a potential long-term energy resource. Researchers will soon start drilling for samples of these deposits.

While scientific interest in methane hydrates developed in the 1960s with the discovery of a deposit in Siberia, little is known about them as an energy resource. Coal, oil and gas account for over 80 percent of the world’s energy needs, and this energy demand is only expected to grow, according to the Global Economic Symposium. Flemings and his team are working to find methane hydrate beneath the sea floor and bring it back to the surface while preserving the high pressures under which it formed.

“The two places we find methane hydrates on Earth are where it’s really cold and the pressure is high, like in the deep ocean,” Flemings said. “We’re leasing and staffing an entire drilling platform off the Gulf of Mexico. Even for UT, this is a big project, and speaking as a professor, most (University projects) don’t get into things of this magnitude.”

Methane is very unstable at surface pressures and temperatures, making it difficult to study, according to the National Academies Press. Since the project began in 2014, the team geo-mapped the area, developed technology to preserve the deposits and performed several tests on land. 

Peter Polito, a UT research science associate who specializes in technical support, said the team is about two months away from a marine test that will vet the equipment and allow research on the actual deposits to begin.

“There’s a lot of technical challenges that we’ve faced,” Polito said. “It’s one thing to go into a deep water environment and extract core, but it’s another thing to keep it cold and under pressure.”

According to the Institute for Geophysics, the Gulf of Mexico contains an estimated 7,000 trillion cubic feet of stored methane hydrate, or more than 250 times the amount of natural gas used in the United States in 2013. Kevin Meazell, a postdoctoral student on the research team, said before the team can produce energy from hydrates, they need to fully understand their chemical properties. 

“We have a brand new state-of-the-art laboratory that will allow us to study the composition and distribution of hydrate within sand reservoirs,” Meazell said. “There are only a handful of similar labs around the world.”

In addition to being a largely untapped energy resource, methane hydrates have a stake in the future of climate change since methane is a potent greenhouse gas which could accelerate the effects of global warming, according to the World Ocean Review. The review added that an increased release of methane into the atmosphere could create a larger greenhouse effect as it is about 20 times more effective per molecule than carbon dioxide. 

Flemings said methane hydrates could serve to help the transition away from less sustainable resources such as coal.

“Some environmentalists say that we don’t need another natural gas, but one thing that’s at stake is finding an abundant, cleaner (than coal) supply of energy as we transition,” Flemings said. “Methane hydrates are a bridge fuel to finding cleaner resources.” 

The team plans to perform a larger drilling project in 2019 to retrieve methane hydrate samples. These will be stored in a specialized facility at the Jackson School of Geosciences. Flemings said these samples will not only be studied by UT researchers but also by other institutions and individuals.

“The whole project has been really interesting. At the end of the day, we are doing something very exciting that has never been done by an American university,” Polito said. “I am really excited by the possibility of getting these cores into our lab and getting my hands on them.”