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The Next Big Thing in Fuel: Methane Hydrate?


Methane Hydrate Fracking GasNatural gas is making quite a name for itself lately, as the trucking industry continues to search for the next big infrastructure boom industry. Wind and solar remain flat, but natural gas continues to be a topic of interest for the trucking industry both as a fuel and as a raw material haul. The natural gas fracking industry has nearly set the trucking industry on fire regionally, with potential for going national. Yet only a few states like South Dakota and Wyoming seem to be capitalizing.

Methane Hydrate just adds fuel to the fire, especially in Alaska. The fuel is there in abundant supply and it’s got some properties that make trucking industry leaders cautiously optimistic.

Recent Associated Press reports cite that the U.S. Department of Energy and industry partners over two winters drilled into a reservoir of methane hydrate, which looks like ice but burns like a candle if a match warms its molecules. There is little need now for methane, the main ingredient of natural gas. With the boom in production from hydraulic fracturing, the United States is awash in natural gas for the near future and is considering exporting it, but the DOE wants to be ready with methane if there’s a need.

The world has a lot of methane hydrate. A Minerals Management Service study in 2008 estimated methane hydrate resources in the northern Gulf of Mexico at 21,000 trillion cubic feet, or 100 times current U.S. reserves of natural gas. The combined energy content of methane hydrate may exceed all other known fossil fuels, according to the DOE.

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That’s a lot of cubic feet of gas that need to be moved by a lot of trucks. The question is, who is open to expanding the industry for this potential fuel?

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said the new research into methane hydrates, while still in its early stages, could “potentially yield significant new supplies of natural gas and further expand U.S. energy supplies.” He said DOE’s shale gas research during the 70s and 80s helped pave the way for the current boom in natural gas production. The Department of Interior gave oil company Shell permission to do limited, experimental drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

Mining Methane Hydrate
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Describing it as the “world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource,” his Department of Energy awarded 13 research projects across 11 states to help develop methane hydrates. DOE says these 3D ice-lattice structures, when melted, turn to liquid water and release methane molecules as gas. It says they’re found onshore and offshore, in ocean sediments worldwide.

Methane hydrate is an attractive energy source due to its high energy density: one cubic meter of combustible ice contains about 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas. This high energy density is due to the fact that methane is trapped within the hydrate crystal structure and greatly compressed.

According to the DOE, the immense energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form may possibly exceed the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels. In addition, the frozen hydrate has few impurities, meaning it can burn cleaner with fewer pollutants than oil and possibly regular natural gas, as well. However, methane is a greenhouse gas that, once released, can remain in the atmosphere for years, magnifying the sun’s rays and elevating the surface temperature. So the DOE likes how much we can get, likes the budget, likes that it’s a potential source of energy that doesn’t rely on foreign intervention, but could possibly make rising temperatures on the Earth’s surface more of a problem in the long run.

The drilling has its environmental critics, but there’s also a climate bonus: The technique requires injecting carbon dioxide into the ground, thereby creating a new way to remove the warming gas from the atmosphere.

“You’re storing the CO2, and also liberating the natural gas,” Christopher Smith, the Energy Department’s oil and natural gas deputy assistant secretary, told msnbc.com. “It’s kind of a two-for-one.”

One thing is for certain though – the industry is going to need hundreds of trucks to move the fuel, no matter if the consumer sector wants it or not, because plenty of other companies are looking into it for on-site fuel. That’s good news for trucking, whether your fleet is looking to convert to LNG or CNG in the next few years.


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