The Department of Energy will launch new research into technologies for unlocking methane gas trapped in ice-like crystals on Alaska’s North Slope, following promising tests earlier this year.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is set to announce the planned $6.5 million research project Wednesday in Washington, ahead of a presentation by Deputy Assistant Secretary Christopher Smith at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.
The move follows tests by ConocoPhillips, the Energy Department and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp., on a method for extracting gas from methane hydrates found in the Arctic and along the Gulf Coast.
Chu hailed the research as a potential breakthrough that “could potentially yield significant new supplies of natural gas.” He likened it to federally funded research in shale gas during the 1970s and 1980s that paved the way for today’s natural gas boom.
The new research focuses on unlocking the potential of methane hydrates, ice-like solids with gas molecules trapped inside. Typically found in high-pressure, low-temperature environments, including the depths below Alaska’s thick permafrost, they hold tremendous promise as an energy source if researchers can figure out how to extract the gas economically.
ConocoPhillips’ tests earlier this year — of a technique called molecular replacement — involved injecting carbon dioxide and nitrogen into a reservoir and swapping it for methane molecules in the solid-water hydrate lattice that stores the natural gas. The Energy Department says the process yielded a steady flow of natural gas.
The technique has potential not only as an energy extraction method, but also as a way to store carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, inside the methane hydrates’ lattice-like structure. The Energy Department said ongoing analysis of the initial tests will focus on assessing the efficiency of simultaneously storing carbon dioxide in the reservoir.