Thursday, February 28, 2013

Your Next Car Will Run On Popsicles

Mound of Methane Hydrate
 Some rights reserved by neptunecanada 
A vaporized, methane-flavored popsicle from beneath the sea to be exact, similar to the one above. The white stuff is bare methane hydrate. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, methane hydrate is "...a crystalline solid consistingof gas molecules...each surrounded by a cage of  water molecules." It is methane gas in little cages of ice that forms at certain pressures and temperatures in the ocean between 300 and 500 meters deep.

Are you a paper kind of person in a plastic kind of world? You better read this.

Yes, methane is that main ingredient in natural gas. Except natural gas has impurities like pentane, butane, propane and ethane. These, along with other contaminants like carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen have to be removed as well; but about 90 to 99 percent of the gas that gets to your stove or central heater is methane.

Good video of where it's found and how it burns.

How much is down there? It is possible there is up to 23,000 times more cubic feet of pure methane stored as methane hydrate in the ocean than there are in the estimated remaining reserves of natural gas on the planet. Let me demonstrate just how large a quantity that is. That is worth approximately 10 million trillion dollars at today's wellhead price of about $3.35 per thousand cubic feet. I'm not making that up. That is 200,000 times the 2006 fifty trillion dollar estimate of the world's economy in US dollars. The U.S. debt is 17 trillion dollars. Take a trillion dollars; multiply it by 10 so that it's 10 trillion (more than half the national debt); now multiply it by a million. Ten million trillion dollars!

Methane hydrate on fire.
Image courtesy USGS
So what's the catch? Why aren't energy companies all over it? Remember the depths that this stuff forms at is 300 to 500 meters. The average depth of the ocean is 4,300 meters. That means it is not neatly and quietly sitting on the ocean bottom waiting to be dredged up. A lot of it forms a structure shoring up sediments along the edge of continental shelves. One of the largest underwater land slides (the Storegga Slide) took place off the coast of Norway some 8000 years ago. It is thought by some the failure of the methane hydrate substrate caused it. No big deal. It was underwater. I think the 80 foot tsunami it created above the water is what everybody is concerned about.

Another catch is you have to be careful about releasing methane into the atmosphere. According to who you listen to, it is 10 to 20 times better than carbon dioxide at being a greenhouse gas. Some would argue it's only because of the relative quantities, there being so much less methane dissipating more quickly than CO2. A more complete discussion of that is here.

And who says energy companies aren't all over it? Would you want to be the dimwit that yelled "Gold!" at Sutter's Mill? Just last year the U.S. and Japan along with ConocoPhillips completed a production field test on Alaska's North Slope. It got very low-key news coverage. It was successful in that the methane was switched with carbon dioxide, keeping the structural integrity of the hydrate. That large amount of money I mentioned above? Make it bigger because the government is going to pay energy companies to sequester the carbon dioxide on top of what they sell the methane for. They modified the tax code last year to make it easier.

Plastic bags are made from ethane, a part of natural gas burned off as waste before they started making plastic bags. 

Am I going to bitch about that? Not just "no" but "hell, no." It's like, out of the blue (actually, the "deep blue"), we get a do-over. We're not running out of fossil fuel, if this can correctly be labeled "fossil." We have enough for at least several centuries. And it's the cleanest burning available except for hydrogen. It's like the largest suckout at the biggest Texas holdem tournament in the galaxy.

Methane-powered rocket - image courtesy NASA
Our energy demands have to be satiated or the economy suffers. This could reverse the trend of energy becoming more and more expensive to produce. It took a barrel of oil to get a 100 barrels of oil in the early 1900's. Today it takes 1 barrel to get 3. Not good. We want to go back to those old times.

Where is all this stuff? Here are two maps of world locations of hydrates; Map 1 and Map 2. And what about the methane in the permafrost melting and causing runaway global warming? It turns out that is less than 1% of total hydrates and evaporating it is a process that will take hundreds of years. I'm all for laying down tarps on the tundra and collecting some of that. After all, 1% of 10 million trillion dollars a lot.

The answer to the plastic bag problem is reuse. This new device makes it easy. 

What does it mean to the average joe? Don't invest in that coal-fired power plant you had your heart set on. What about those big rigs running the highways. Right now they save the equivalent of $2 per gallon using compressed or liquid natural gas rather than diesel. Imagine if there were, literally, oceans of the stuff? Your electrical rates could be halved or quartered while your air gets cleaner. It won't be long before ships join the fray, cutting freight costs even further. GE will, of course, adapt it to trains and planes. The airline industry, a real stumper for going green, could start using LNG. You could fly to Vegas and back for $10. Fees not included. Cars! Baby boomers zooming all over the country in their LNG-powered RVs. Cheap rocket fuel - see photo above. Personal, LNG-powered thermal zeppelins. Okay, I'm getting exuberant.

It's nice to see something good on the horizon. Let's hope they get it right on extracting methane hydrate. We could use a lucky break. Let's take full advantage of it. Let's hope it's not so good, we forget about developing more efficient, cheaper solar cells; abandon the quest for fusion; and give up on the conquest of space because we're so comfy down here. Because it may not seem like there's any end to the methane when we're flying NY to LA for $50, but there is; and we are known to procrastinate.

Thank you,

Glen Hendrix, author Transmat World

Comments always welcome.

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