WASHINGTON, DC - An innovative simulation program developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is helping identify future energy supplies. The first publicly available simulator of its kind, the TOUGH-Fx/Hydrate program is helping researchers and industry partners better understand an emerging natural gas resource: methane hydrates.
As U.S. demand for natural gas continues to rise, so does our dependence on foreign imports and our need for alternative energy resources. Early studies have shown researchers that methane hydrates-frozen compounds of flammable methane gas trapped inside water molecules-could be the fuel of the future.
"Small amounts of gas have been extracted from methane hydrate reservoirs in the past. However, obtaining quantities large enough for commercial production requires significant technological advances and additional research to further our fundamental understanding of these reservoirs," explained Kelly Rose, a project manager at DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). "Using an advanced tool like the TOUGH-Fx/Hydrate simulator to understand how methane hydrates behave in the natural environment is one way to overcome these obstacles."
Tough-Fx/Hydrate simulates the behavior of hydrate-bearing geologic systems and evaluates appropriate hydrate production strategies for both permafrost and marine environments, including thermal stimulation, depressurization and dissociation induced and/or enhanced by inhibitors (such as brines and alcohols).
Since its public release in 2005, there has been considerable interest in the program, both domestically and abroad. Program licenses have been granted to 25 non-commercial organizations in 11 countries. Two major oil and gas companies have also purchased licenses-the first steps into industry application. In all, nearly 80 researchers are estimated to now have access to the TOUGH-Fx/Hydrate program.
The program's strength lies in its wide-ranging scope, scale, and applicability. The model can be used by laboratory scientists for fundamental research from the molecular to the reservoir level. It can also be run by industrial operators to conduct large-scale production studies using actual field data.
Once believed to exist only in the outer reaches of the solar system, large deposits of methane hydrates have been found in deepwater marine and permafrost sediment around the globe. If produced on a larger scale, the compound known as "fire ice" could more than double the U.S. natural gas resource base. Moving from concept to commercial production, however, will require ongoing investigation of this vast but complex natural resource.
"Continued academic inquiry and growing commercial use of the TOUGH-Fx/Hydrate program will help identify knowledge and technology gaps, evaluate different production scenarios, and anticipate potential hazards for oil and natural gas operators," said Rose. "With this simulation program, researchers from around the world can better understand the future production potential of methane hydrate reservoirs and determine next steps in the overall R&D effort. "
Prompted by the Methane Hydrate R&D Act, NETL's Methane Hydrate R&D Program has funded the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory's development of the simulator since 2002. Already the most advanced reservoir simulator dedicated specifically to methane hydrates, TOUGH-Fx/Hydrate is slated for ongoing support and development through 2006.