It is now clear that methane hydrates contain enormous volumes of natural gas and have the potential to play a major role in future global energy supplies. Recent developments indicate that the prospects for economic production of methane from hydrates are good, and could occur much sooner than previously thought. To ensure that the United States remains a leader in hydrates research and technology, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Strategic Center for Natural Gas (SCNG) at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is charged with coordinating a comprehensive national research and development program in all aspects of methane hydrates. In advance of attempts at commercial exploitation, our program will support fundamental studies that will improve the understanding of the nature of hydrates, the impact of hydrates on the strength and stability of ocean-bottom sediments, and the interaction of the global hydrate reservoir with the world's oceans and atmosphere. This report outlines these key methane hydrate research and development (R&D) issues, reviews DOE's past and current hydrate programs, and outlines our plans for a coordinated and collaborative R&D program in which the nation's best minds are efficiently brought to bear on the challenge of maximizing the potential benefits of natural methane hydrates.
At present, the United States is relying on the accelerated use of clean and affordable natural gas to simultaneously achieve aggressive economic and environmental goals. Fundamental to this strategy is an abundant and affordable supply of domestic natural gas. However, there are increasing concerns about the surety of this supply. In a recent workshop on post-2020 gas supplies held at the DOE's NETL, most organizations agreed that a new source of supply would most likely be needed by the year 2030. That new source will likely be methane hydrates.
Clearly, no one institution has the resources and the expertise to quickly resolve the many issues and technological challenges surrounding the possible exploitation of methane hydrates. Similarly, a series of parallel, duplicative, and uncoordinated efforts will inevitably delay results and may leave key questions unanswered. The NETL believes that a nationally coordinated, collaborative effort is needed, and is committed to supporting a program of allied and focused investigations by the nation's leading researchers on all fronts of the methane hydrate issue.
Methane Hydrates are the most abundant natural form of clathrate - unique chemical substances in which molecules of one material (in this case, water) form an open solid lattice that encloses, without chemical bonding, appropriately-sized molecules of another material (in this case, methane). Recent investigations have revealed that the widespread occurrence of both methane and water allows methane hydrates to accumulate virtually everywhere pressures and temperatures are suitable. As a result, evidence of hydrates is being discovered at relatively shallow depths beneath arctic permafrost and within the fine-grained clastic sediments on the slopes and rises of continental shelves around the world.