GULF OF MEXICO - Off Louisiana - Only a handful of
the world's scientists and petroleum engineers haveever been "up close
and personal" with a methane hydrate deposit deep on the ocean floor.
Yet, these largely-unexplored ice-like formations may hold almost unimaginable
quantities of natural gas, a potential huge resource for an energy-hungry
Now students in classrooms around the country, and others with access
to the Internet, will be able to share the experiences of three researchers
who will descend more than a mile deep into the Gulf of Mexico next week
to study ocean hydrates in their natural state.
Under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy
Technology Laboratory, the deep ocean research submersible ALVIN, with
its 3-person crew, will make two dives - one on October 24, the other
on October 26 - to study and retrieve samples of hydrates on the Gulf
of Mexico floor, some 6,000 feet below the surface.
Students will be able to ask questions of Energy Department scientists
working with the project and hear audio reports sent by satellite from
the dive site. Results of the dives will be posted at the end of each
Methane hydrates are an intriguing geologic phenomenon. Created by a
combination of cold temperatures and high pressures, they are ice crystals
that encase molecules of methane, or natural gas. When the ice melts,
it can release as much as 160 times in volume in natural gas.
Hydrates are known to exist on the ocean floor and beneath the Arctic
Recent studies have estimated that hydrate formations in the United States
could hold as much as 200,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- dwarfing
the estimated 1,400 trillion cubic feet of conventional recoverable gas
resources and reserves in the United States.
The hydrate dives are part of a 17-day ocean expedition by the ALVIN
conducted through the Center for Marine Science and the University of
North Carolina at Wilmington. The ALVIN is a highly-instrumented mini-submarine
operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It has been used
for such diverse missions as the search for the RMS Titanic to the study
of the movement of the earth's tectonic plates to the examination of whale
Leading the hydrate dives will be Dr. Ian MacDonald, Associate Research
Scientist with the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group of Texas
A&M University. He is an internationally recognized expert on the biology
and geology of marine oil seeps. The Energy Department's scientist on
site will be Thomas Mroz, who was part of the team that developed the
Energy Department's original gas hydrate research efforts in the 1980s.