Scientists Research Fire and Ice

Feb 1, 2018

The Trump administration has again raised the prospect of drilling for oil and gas off Virginia’s coast, but those are not the only energy sources found at sea.  A substance called Fire and Ice could supply the world with energy for decades.

Methane escaping from crystals of ice can be set on fire

On a warm day at the beach, it’s hard to imagine just how cold the ocean can be at great depths – cold enough that with high pressure naturally occurring methane gas is trapped inside ice crystals under the sea bed.  Virginia Tech’s chairman of geosciences, Steve Holbrook, has studied this substance.  It’s called methane hydrate or fire and ice, because, he says,  you can actually burn it.

“You can find YouTube videos of this. If you hold a lighter or a match to it, it will ignite, and so for a few minutes anyway  you can actually have burning ice. the match is igniting the methane that's locked up inside the lattice," he explains.  "At the end of that you’ve just got a puddle of water left.”

This stuff is found in only two places – in the permafrost of the arctic and deep in the ocean.  Scientists say it could be more prevalent than any other fossil fuel on earth, but they don’t know how much there actually is and how best to extract it.  Study is needed but Holbrook says that’s easier said than done.

“Methane hydrate that’s in permafrost, of course, it’s on land, so it’s a lot less expensive to drill into it and to study it.  Offshore methane hydrate, which is the majority of this reservoir globally, you need a ship.”

And that’s exactly what a team of scientists got in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists retrieve core samples of methane hydrate from the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit University of Texas

“We’re out here, and the water is over a mile deep, it’s almost 6,700 feet.” 

Peter Flemings holds the Jackson Chair in Energy and Mineral Resources at the University of Texas.  He and research engineer Peter Polito say removing core samples of methane hydrate from the ocean floor is an important but challenging job.

“You want to study those cores out here with x-rays and sampling devices all of which work at extremely high pressures,” Flemings says.

“We’re jamming a tiny straw through over a mile of water, through a half a mile of rock, and trying to pull up ten feet of ice," Polito adds.

Back on campus in Austin, these yard-long samples from the Gulf of Mexico are stored in one of the few laboratories of its kind, overseen by Peter Polito.

“These 21 pressure cores are very valuable," he says. "They’re dirt, mud, ice and methane, but to get them was every expensive, so every room is outfitted with redundant systems, so what you’re hearing is the refrigerators turning off and on and oscillating from one side to the other.  To make sure things stay cold?  Exactly. If you have really high pressures, then this hydrate can be stable at room temperature, but it has to be very high pressure, so basically you’ve got to squeeze it and freeze it.”

Given the abundance of natural gas in this country and the challenge of harvesting methane from the ocean, the U.S. is unlikely to be using it any time soon, but Steve Phillips, a post doc at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences  says there are other markets for methane. “Japan and India and China who have been even more aggressive with methane hydrate research.  Japan has done two production tests already, and China has done one.”

Still, the U.S. Department of Energy of is spending millions of dollars on this research  to understand methane hydrate, to be ready for a future that may require a bridge from dirty coal and oil to cleaner gas to renewables. And there’s one more reason to do basic studies.  As the seas warm methane might begin bubbling up from the ocean floor, making climate change worse.

“There is in fact evidence in  several places, including the east coast of the U.S., where scientists have observed  gas bubbles that are emerging.  It’s much more potent than CO2," Virginia Tech Professor Steve Holbrook notes. "Sea levels are rising, and anything that exacerbates that is not going to be good news for Virginia coastal communities.”  

Scientists say gas is escaping daily from the arctic permafrost. The University of Texas plans another expedition to study methane hydrate in 2020.  

Audio from the University's research facility at sea was provided by Skylark Creative which produced this video about research on methane hydrate.

Click here to watch the video.