Washington, D.C. — Increased understanding of methane's role in the global climate cycle and the potential of methane hydrate as a future energy resource could result from a recent joint research expedition off the coast of northeastern Alaska involving the Office of Fossil Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
The Beaufort Sea expedition, which included research partners from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, gathered a wealth of data to help understand "fluxes," or changes in the concentration of methane within and across the Beaufort shelf. The expedition, completed Sept. 26, 2009, also provided information for helping to evaluate methane hydrate as an energy resource in this region.
Although not as plentiful in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is about 10 times more potent as a greenhouse gas in terms of its potential contribution to global climate change. Recently, researchers have raised concerns that relatively small changes in global climate could lead to an increase in methane released from subsurface accumulations in areas like the Arctic Shelf. However, methane (or gas) hydrates—molecules of natural gas trapped in ice crystals—in these subsurface reservoirs also represent a potentially vast resource that may have as much energy as all the world's other fossil fuels combined. The cost-effective development of hydrate reserves can play a major role both in moderating natural gas price increases and ensuring adequate future supplies for American consumers.
The 12-day expedition, the first comprehensive and dedicated study of the continental shelf and slope found under the U.S. Beaufort Sea, realized an extensive set of project goals, including obtaining data to help understand the source and fate of methane fluxes in this region. These fluxes can be controlled by a variety of environments, including permafrost, deep gas hydrate reservoirs, or shallow marine sediments. The data also help characterize the potential pathways in which methane enters the overlying water column and then, potentially, the atmosphere.
The National Methane Hydrate R&D Act of 2000 mandated that a national program study and understand the potential of hydrate as a future energy resource and its potential role in the global climate cycle. The Methane In The Arctic Shelf/Slope expedition was one of the first major field-based projects to place a dominant focus on the global climate aspects of this issue in the United States. Methane hydrate research has been conducted since 2000 through NETL, in conjunction with other government agencies, private institutions and universities, including the unique capabilities of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories.
DOE also is conducting and supporting a comprehensive suite of field and modeling studies of gas hydrates’ link to climate and carbon cycling, helping explain the role gas hydrates may play during periods of climate change.
Thirty-four international researchers from 12 domestic and international organizations in industry, academia, and government participated in the expedition. NETL contributed significant scientific, technical, and organizational support to this study.