Monday, April 29, 2013

Chess Matches v World of Warcraft Games: What do Methane Hydrates Mean?

The Japanese have been exploring the use of Methane Hydrates as an alternative to imported oil, coal and natural gas for almost 20 years now.  In their typical low-key methodical fashion they have made considerable progress.  The Atlantic article, excerpted below and linked here, with the provocative if misleading title "What if We Never Run Out of Oil" provides an excellent history based introduction to the Methane Hydrates.

As with any fossil fuel energy source, the potential use of Methane Hydrates will cause many advocates of green and renewable energy resources great angst, but when you think through the economic, social and environmental impacts of Methane Hydrates they seem to be a good alternative to dirtier, less reliable and less accessible alternatives.  The image below shows the locations, around the globe, from which Methane Hydrates have been recovered - the yellow boxes - and where Methane Hydrates are thought to exist - the blue dots - but where no actual recovery has yet been made.

Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers beneath the seafloor, methane hydrate is, by some estimates, twice as abundant as all other fossil  fuels combined. The yellow squares show where methane hydrate has already been recovered; the blue dots, where it is thought to exist. (Map by Alice Cho)

Below are a few interesting excerpts from the article.  I encourage you to book mark and read the whole article - its very long - over the next several days.

The Chikyu, which first set out in 2005, was initially intended to probe earthquake-generating zones in the planet’s mantle, a subject of obvious interest to seismically unstable Japan. Its present undertaking was, if possible, of even greater importance: trying to develop an energy source that could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.
Already the petroleum industry has been convulsed by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—a technique for shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals into rock, splitting it open, and releasing previously inaccessible oil, referred to as “tight oil.” Still more important, fracking releases natural gas, which, when yielded from shale, is known as shale gas. (Petroleum is a grab-bag term for all nonsolid hydrocarbon resources—oil of various types, natural gas, propane, oil precursors, and so on—that companies draw from beneath the Earth’s surface. The stuff that catches fire around stove burners is known by a more precise term, natural gas, referring to methane, a colorless, odorless gas that has the same chemical makeup no matter what the source—ordinary petroleum wells, shale beds, or methane hydrate.) Fracking has been attacked as an environmental menace to underground water supplies, and may eventually be greatly restricted. But it has also unleashed so much petroleum in North America that the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based consortium of energy-consuming nations, predicted in November that by 2035, the United States will become “all but self-sufficient in net terms.” If the Chikyu researchers are successful, methane hydrate could have similar effects in Japan. And not just in Japan: China, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Norway are looking to unlock these crystal cages, as are Canada and the United States.
Here I should confess to personal bias. Twelve years ago, a magazine asked me to write an article about energy supplies. While researching, I met petroleum geologists and engineers who told me about a still-experimental technique called hydraulic fracturing. Intrigued, I asked several prominent energy pundits about it. All scoffed at the notion that it would pay off. To be fair, some early fracking research was outlandish; three early trials involved setting off atomic weapons underground (they did produce natural gas, but it was radioactive). I don’t want to embarrass anyone I spoke with. I failed to exercise independent judgment, and did not mention hydraulic fracturing in my article, so I was just as mistaken. But I also don’t want to miss the boat again. Even though plenty of experts discount methane hydrate, I now am more inclined to pay attention to the geologists and engineers who foresee a second, fracking-type revolution with it, a revolution that—unlike the shale-gas rush, mostly a North American phenomenon—will ripple across the globe.

P.S.  The quote I shared earlier on LinkedIn and via Twitter comes from the article and reads:

"To ask utilities to take in large amounts of solar power—electricity generated by hundreds or thousands of small installations, many on neighborhood roofs and lawns, whose output is affected by clouds—is like asking a shipping firm to replace its huge, professionally staffed container ships with squadrons of canoes paddled by random adolescents. "

The author provides great insights, but remains fixated on "climate change" as a boogeyman that must be conquered.  Given the 15+ year "pause" in warming and the current coldest spring in 75 years, one would think the Orwellian phrase, "climate change" would be falling out of favor.  But apparently not.

The bigger concern, from my perspective, is not "climate change" but a shift, as the title of the blog suggests from a global foreign policy that relies on Chess like skills to a foreign policy more dependent on a "World of Warcraft" view of foreign policy.  Regardless, the article is an excellent summary of the history of oil & gas and the effect of natural gas and Methane Hydrates on the world. 

Nuclear fusion is actually the next great leap in energy technology.  Natural gas from fracking and Methane Hydrates appear to be the bridge fuels, along with renewables as they mature.  I've a got post on nuclear fusion waiting in the wings, but have been digging out from under other obligations since I got back from Denver.  The great thing about all of these advances in energy and energy extraction is that more and lower costs energy solutions will enable us to focus on increasing the efficiency with which we deliver planning, design and construction services and the economic and environmental compatibility of buildings - the largest consumers of energy on the planet - the we plan, design, build, operate and maintain.

James L. Salmon, Esq.
Collaborative Construction
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