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Could Tapping Undersea Methane Lead To A New Gas Boom?

16th of March, 2013

NPR.org, by Christopher Joyce

The new boom in natural gas from shale has changed the energy economy of the United States. But there's another giant reservoir of natural gas that lies under the ocean floor that, theoretically, could dwarf the shale boom.

No one had tapped this gas from the seabed until this week, when Japanese engineers pulled some up through a well from under the Pacific. The gas at issue here is called methane hydrate. Methane is natural gas; hydrate means there's water in it. In this case, the molecules of gas are trapped inside a sort of cage of water molecules.

Few people have actually seen methane hydrates, but Ann Cook, a geophysicist at Ohio State University, is one of the few.

"If you think about snow freezing in mud, that's what it would look like," says Cook, who spends weeks at a time looking for methane hydrates aboard drilling ships. "You would think, 'Oh, it's not so interesting,' " she says. "But then if you decided to light it on fire, it would burn right in front of you."

You can find methane hydrates underground in the Arctic, in frozen soil called permafrost. But most of the stuff lies under the seafloor, cold and under high pressure. It took millions of years for it to form, mostly from ocean microbes eating dead plankton. "And when those things die," says Cook, "they sort of rain down onto the ocean floor. And then later on, that organic matter is eaten by little microbes, and in the eating process, they spit out methane." READ MORE HERE.

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