ARCHIVED - Gas Hydrates - Energy Needs for the Next Thousand Years?

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August 04, 2004— Ottawa, Ontario

A flaming gas snowball.

A flaming gas snowball.

Gas hydrates represent one of the world's largest untapped reservoirs of energy and, according to some estimates, have the potential to meet global energy needs for the next thousand years. "A gas hydrate is a cage-like lattice of ice which traps molecules of methane inside. Gas hydrates are found in permafrost regions or offshore on the Continental margins."

NRC researchers at NRC-SIMS (NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences) provide the "molecular" foundation in Canada for doing gas hydrate analysis. Several kinds of gas hydrate structures have since been produced and discovered at NRC-SIMS. Drs. John Ripmeester, Chris Ratcliff and John Tse actually created a gas hydrate called "Structure H" (known as a clathrate) and were able to predict that it would be found "in nature", recently confirmed in a sample hydrate recovered off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Gas Hydrates

The science of gas hydrates has come a long way from its humble beginnings when, in 1810, Humphrey Davy put chlorine in water and got a solid compound that was stable above the melting point of ice.

NRC-SIMS is also involved in the Mallik Gas Hydrate Well Program in the North West Territories, an international collaboration between Canadian, Japanese, American, German, and Indian Governments and oil development interests. The Functional Materials Group, led by John Ripmeester, studies the samples using a variety of techniques including NMR spectroscopy to look at their structure, composition, formation and decomposition processes. They find out exactly how much gas is contained in the clathrate structures and then return detailed information back to field scientists.

Canada's Climate Change Initiative

Canada has traditionally been non-aggressive in exploring the possibility of using gas hydrates as a resource because of its rich reservoirs of natural gas. Still, Canada has managed to maintain an excellent reputation in the hydrate research field from a pure science vantage. Japan and India, on the other hand, who lack natural energy resources, have been forceful proponents for gas hydrate research.

Canadian support for gas hydrate research however is recently on the rise. Since August 2003, the Canadian Government has evoked a "Climate Change Initiative" which is committed to looking at unconventional gasses, including possible production from gas hydrates, more seriously. Extracting hydrate will be more expensive than conventional gas, as specialized techniques will need to be developed.

NRC-SIMS' Theory and Computation Group, led by John Tse, is the world's leader in providing an understanding of clathrate structural and thermodynamic stability. The team is currently looking at using gas hydrate as storage media for hydrogen.

Gas hydrate research at NRC-SIMS also involves ways of preventing gas from forming plugs in pipelines, a costly maintenance problem especially when they occur in pipelines on the ocean floor. Clogged pipelines were once thought to be caused by ordinary ice but it is now known they are caused by hydrate formation. In collaboration with Virginia Walker, a biologist at Queens University, NRC is working on ways to inhibit this process. The team has discovered that natural "antifreeze" proteins designed to inhibit ice formation in plants and animals also prevents gas hydrate formation. Now, the goal will be to find cheaper ways to obtain the protein or to find the materials that mimic the protein action.

Canadian Gas Hydrates Research

Canadian gas hydrates research began at NRC's Chemistry Division with Dr. Don Davidson in the 1950's where he was mainly interested in fundamental science, and worked on hydrates well before natural hydrates were found.

Ultimately, NRC-SIMS will continue to make strides in gas hydrate research by promoting joint efforts to carry out cross-disciplinary research with other organizations both nationally and internationally. NRC-SIMS has the expertise and the equipment to keep Canada and Canadians in the forefront of gas hydrates research for some time to come.

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