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A Song of Ice on Fire
March 12, 2013 7:29 PM   Subscribe

Methane hydrates, also known as clathrates, are crystalline ice structures which trap molecules of natural gas. They are fairly ubiquitous in near-shore seafloor sediments, where methane from decaying organic matter is trapped in an ice structure at low temperature and high pressure. Though methane hydrates are believed to contain substantially more natural gas than conventional deposits, extraction of the natural gas was thought to be impractical. Until now.

Previously.
posted by irrelephant (35 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Out of the nuclear frying pan into the global climate change fire.
posted by localroger at 7:36 PM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Extraordinary that all these unconventional fossil fuels become viable with $100 oil.
Shame there isn't any cheap oil left to be found to give the economy some tailwind, like the artificially low US gas prices are doing.
Might want to consider renewables, though, as there is some evidence that releasing too much CO2 into the atmosphere might have negative outcomes.
posted by bystander at 7:37 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Even if we discover clean, unlimited, renewable energy, we'll still trash the planet by using it.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:37 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow, it's a "sherbetlike substance." Is there anything else in that category, other than sherbet?
posted by asperity at 7:38 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Experts estimate that the carbon found in gas hydrates worldwide totals at least twice the amount of carbon in all of the earth’s other fossil fuels..."

Damn.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 7:38 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Methane is by some standards a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Burning gas captured from methyl hydrates might actually be a net positive for the environment, as compared to the consequences of just watching the ice melt.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:41 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Even if we made the switch to wind/solar/etc tomorrow, there would still be a need for hydrocarbons for stuff like plastic. Try running a modern hospital without it.
posted by mullingitover at 7:41 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps better that we burn a relatively clean fossil fuel that remains a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, than expand nuclear that would only last 40-50 years at full refining and usage.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:42 PM on March 12, 2013


Wow, it's a "sherbetlike substance." Is there anything else in that category, other than sherbet?

Yes, sherbert and sorbet. Sherbet does not exist. Pistols at dawn.
posted by oneironaut at 7:47 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


If sherbert doesn't exist, how can there be fountains of it?
posted by NailsTheCat at 7:56 PM on March 12, 2013


Sherbet totally exists. Sherbert does not. ("Alternate spelling" is the polite way of saying "ignorant.")
posted by asperity at 8:01 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Where else had I heard the word "clathrate" in recent years. Oh, right... here. Yes, I do know this was linked from the first link in the post, but it does deserve emphasizing.

Climate scientists are worried that this methane will get released as the oceans warm, causing further warming. So instead we'll just extract it beforehand and burn it. Problem solved. I'm sure this will end well.
posted by pascal at 8:01 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh great, let's speed up global warming and release the rest of the methane hydrates when the oceans warm. Greaaaat plan.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:07 PM on March 12, 2013


I'm sure this will end well.

Well, yes, burning it (thereby converting it to water and CO2) would be far preferable to releasing it into the atmosphere as methane.
posted by Jpfed at 8:07 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


would be far preferable to releasing it into the atmosphere as methane.
Well, yes, but not releasing it at all seems to be smarter, no?
posted by bystander at 8:09 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even if we made the switch to wind/solar/etc tomorrow, there would still be a need for hydrocarbons for stuff like plastic. Try running a modern hospital without it.

Less than 10% of petroleum and natural gas is used for chemical feedstocks, including plastics. Carbon in plastics is not released to the atmosphere unless burned. Natural gas turned into polyethylene is not a greenhouse gas.
posted by JackFlash at 8:10 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I do like the constant hymn from the free-energy pseudoscientists that rheir rotating magnet/magic box of fusion dust/zero-point Time Cube singularity can produce infinite amounts of clean energy and that this will Save The Planet.

Anything we do - anything - that releases energy into the environment, soaks it up from the environment, or in any way changes its current flow around the environment, will change the environment. It's mostly a question of how quickly and dramatically we want this to happen, and how we feel about the consequences.

Burn the methane? Sure, why not. The planet doesn't care, and nature is quite capable of filling out all the new niches with variants of the same things that filled the old niches when they were new. Life and Earth has been through far more than even we can do to the place (photosynthesis! Now there was a planet-changing energy technology! We are rank amateurs).

But as the biggest apex species going, we will get it in the neck. Might not want that.
posted by Devonian at 8:21 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sherbet lives!
posted by pompomtom at 8:21 PM on March 12, 2013


Nature took a billion years to extract all of the carbon dioxide from the air and bury it under the ground and the oceans to create a friendly atmosphere in which humans evolved. We are trying to undo that billion years of work in a couple of centuries.
posted by JackFlash at 8:27 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just when we thought they'd exhausted all the ways to suck the planet dry of fossil fuels, here comes Methane Sorbet to ruin what's left of the atmosphere.

Yay!
posted by empatterson at 8:27 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's SOAR-BAY! Say it right, Frenchie!
posted by empatterson at 8:28 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The end of winter is coming.
posted by R. Schlock at 8:34 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can almost think that it's not a terrible thing that it can be extracted because at least when shot gets real, we can just mine the Methane Sorbet (heh) and store it somewhere instead of letting it release into the atmosphere. If we haven't burned it all by then, that is.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:44 PM on March 12, 2013


I do like the constant hymn from the free-energy pseudoscientists that rheir rotating magnet/magic box of fusion dust/zero-point Time Cube singularity can produce infinite amounts of clean energy and that this will Save The Planet.

Fusion power generation actually could end global warming. Lots of ways of industrially sequestering carbon become relatively practical if you have an unlimited supply of extremely cheap electricity. Helium is not a greenhouse gas.

You can tell the situation is desperate when inventing fusion is one of the most reasonable hopes we have left.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:16 PM on March 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Natural gas turned into polyethylene is not a greenhouse gas.

Naw, it just ends up in the Great Gyre of Garbage.
posted by benzenedream at 10:04 PM on March 12, 2013


You might have heard a lot of things about methane hydrates, but it is likely that much of it is misleading (like the clathrate gun hypothesis mentioned above, which is now widely considered by climate scientists to be debunked).

The UN Environmental Program has a very nice site on hydrates, including this FAQ . UNEP itself believes that hydrates could be a good source for a low-carbon emission 'transition fuel'.

As someone who has done some work on gas hydrates (including with UNEP), I can tell you that the JOGMEC test is exciting, but they're still a long way from commercial production. Long-term (years) tests are needed to understand the rates and sustainability of hydrate production.

You also have the potential of sinking CO2 while you extract the methane from the hydrates (CO2 likes forming hydrates even more than methane).
posted by grajohnt at 10:23 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Out of the nuclear frying pan into the global climate change fire.

Should you live long enough you're going to wish you were back in the frying pan.
posted by clarknova at 10:50 PM on March 12, 2013


The wikipedia entry on clathrate gun hypothesis does not paint a rosy picture. It appears that melting clathrates do pose a significant threat to our climate and oceans.

The "frozen heat" website hits my cynicism meter so hard that the needle is pinned. It is one slick bit of propaganda.

Tens to hundreds of gigatons of methane are poised to enter our atmosphere. I am exceedingly skeptical of claims that this will not cause radical changes in weather patterns and, subsequently, our ability to grow crops and maintain our current infrastructure.

It may not drive our species to extinction, but I think massive clathrate release is guaranteed to knock us on our asses.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:17 AM on March 13, 2013


but I think massive clathrate release is guaranteed to knock us on our asses.

Such short term thinking. The future of mankind on this planet will be better guaranteed when there are few less billion people on the planet. Nature isn't going to kick anyone's ass. We'll do that to each other as water and food resources become restricted and honestly spoken the sooner that happens the better. Today we only need to kill off some 3 billion people to make things right. In another 50 years, it'll take 10 billion corpses.
posted by three blind mice at 2:15 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Methane hydrates? Is this secretly a plan by the Joker to get us to use wet farts as a power source?
posted by Riki tiki at 2:28 AM on March 13, 2013


fff - If a UNEP stance on this 'hits your cynicism meter', then who do you accept as a credible source? They are, after all, one of the drivers of international agreements on controlling climate change (who do you think drives the IPCC?). They believe, on balance, that humanity is better off overall WITH hydrates than WITHOUT - from the perspective of climate change.

The science here is clear that 1) there's no way for all the hydrates to go 'all at once' - release of particularly the large volume of stratigraphically-bound hydrates would take millenia, and 2) it's not clear whether this methane would even make it into the atmosphere and what the actual climate change impact would be (methane is a a powerful greenhouse gas, but has a very short atmospheric residence time). For a very nice readable summary article, try this one.

From the perspective of a scientist who has worked on this, if that's the stance you're going to take, I am forced to put you in the same category of non-science-believers as climate-change-deniers and those who believe that vaccines cause autism. You are choosing to believe what you believe in the face of what the science is telling you.
posted by grajohnt at 2:31 AM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am struck once again crying over our failure to begin in the 70's the construction of the space based solar power stations in geosynchonous orbit. And our failure in the 80's. 90's, 00's... and now....

Everything else is just wasting time and valuable plastic manufacturing feedstock. Burning tupperware. How moronic.
posted by mikelieman at 3:46 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Natural Gas is selling at $3.67 MMBtu, the rough/nominal equivalent of $3.67 per 1000 cubic feet (MCF). At that price, *nobody* is developing natural gas resources. It's basically worthless to the producer, and in the U.S. it's produced as a byproduct of oil extraction. In my limited experience, it becomes a modestly worthwhile product somewhere around $6/MCF, and a genuinely worthwhile product at $12/MCF.

The problem is that as oil prices rise, so does oil development. While this makes natural gas look better as an alternative fuel (carbon emissions notwithstanding) it has the paradoxical effect of driving prices down due to the increased supply of byproduct gas. This would be good for the consumer, but at current prices, nobody will invest in gas infrastructure. Well, ok, large, extremely well funded entities that have their eye on very long term investments will, but those projects are moving very slowly, and they aren't targeted at U.S. consumers.

Methane hydrates are certainly relatively expensive to develop commercially, so the price for gas would have to be proportionally high in order to enable development. Now, if a nation decides to *subsidize* development, they could have a real nice source of relatively cheap energy on their hands - again, carbon emissions notwithstanding. The thing is, especially in a situation like Japan's, you'd have to balance the (subsidized, actual) cost of methane development against a "clean" nuclear infrastructure. My gut instinct tells me that nuclear would still be cheaper, especially if you factor carbon emission as a cost, or have mandated carbon controls in place that increase the cost of methane.

However, nuclear is a dirty word as long as Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are in our memories. Nuclear power disasters are terrible things, no doubt. But the potential release of millions and millions of years worth of stored carbon could mean a much more expensive global disaster for us in the long run. I suspect that methane's arcane, slow, cerebral impacts will play out much better in the court of public opinion than nuclear, though, and particularly so in Japan.

In case you think I have forgotten about solar power, I haven't. Solar is obviously a clean, renewable energy source, but it has cost issues of its own, and honestly, doesn't seem to be a serious contender in the short run. The problem with solar is that it doesn't generate enough revenue - it has to be subsidized, as Japan will have to subsidize methane. Wind power is certainly commercially feasible, but it has issues that limit its widespread implementation, so again, it's a low return, long term investment. For the time being, it's fossil fuels or nukes. Pick your poison.
posted by Xoebe at 6:39 AM on March 13, 2013


With natural gas prices being so low I would have thought it would be the next new thing to use for cars, but I'm slightly puzzled at its slow uptake. Perhaps it's an infrastructure thing, or people don't like waiting for the LPG to pump into the car (it's significantly slower than petrol). But the latest liquid phase injection engines which came on market 3 years ago are pretty incredible, for what they cost - only require a relatively minor (and cheap) conversion from a standard petrol engine, and they output more power than petrol going into the same engine, while costing about half as much to run for the same distance of driving. More power + half the cost seems like a no brainer as an alternative fuel.
posted by xdvesper at 4:25 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


RE: Fusion Power

Lockheed's Skunk Works is predicting it will have a working 100mW prototype fusion power generator small enough to fit on the back of a truck by 2017, with commercial 100mW systems available by 2022.

At that optimistic rate, we'd be able to meet all global energy demands with fusion power by about 2045.

I won't be holding my breath, but here's hoping. Humanity, the environment, and all of the animal species that will be driven to extinction if the former doesn't stop destroying the latter, could really use a break like this.
posted by Davenhill at 6:06 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


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