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April 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

Around the world, many countries with limited fossil fuel reserves are exploring ways to harvest natural gas hydrates — or "methane ice" — that are found in permafrost regions and on the ocean floor. "Natural gas hydrates are a huge potential hydrocarbon resource if the methane can be extracted cheaply enough," says Dr. Chris Ratcliffe of the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences (NRC-SIMS). "Some people have estimated that global supplies of natural gas hydrates could store more energy than all the known resources we have from oil, natural gas and coal."

Whatever the future of this untapped resource in Canada, NRC will likely play an important role. "We're experts in the basic physical characterization of gas hydrate structures," says Dr. Ratcliffe. "We look at natural gas hydrate samples from all over the world, which get sent here for structural and compositional analysis."

NRC researchers — including Dr. Ratcliffe and Dr. John Ripmeester — are currently studying gas hydrates from several angles. For example, the team has analyzed samples from an experimental gas hydrate well in Canada's Mackenzie Delta, a project led by Natural Resources Canada. "We've also been doing research with the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, which is interested in trying to harvest natural gas hydrates off the shores of Japan," says Dr. Ratcliffe.

A gas hydrate is a crystalline solid consisting of water
A gas hydrate is a crystalline solid consisting of water "cages" in which gaseous compounds, such as methane, are trapped one molecule at a time. At sufficiently high pressures, methane hydrates can remain "frozen" at temperatures above the melting point of ice, as shown in this "burning snowball."

Another research focus concerns the possibility of creating hydrates that store hydrogen for use in fuel cells. "It's possible to make pure hydrogen hydrates, but only at very high pressures and low temperatures," says Dr. Ratcliffe.

"We've been trying to find ways to create mixed hydrates that include hydrogen plus a second gas that can form a hydrate at higher temperatures and lower pressures. You then try to remove the second gas." So far, the NRC team has made gas hydrates that contain up to four percent hydrogen by weight.

In collaboration with Dr. Virginia Walker, a Queen's University biologist, and Peter Englezos, a chemical engineer at the University of British Columbia, the NRC team is also testing the effects of natural microbial materials for inhibiting the formation of gas hydrates.

According to Dr. Ratcliffe, gas hydrates can plug up pipelines, causing a huge problem for the oil and gas industry, which spends billions of dollars every year trying to prevent such blockages. Frozen hydrate plugs can not only stop the flow of natural gas, they can also damage a pipeline during thawing. "There can be a huge pressure difference on either side of the plug," he says. "When the plug begins to melt, it can shoot down the pipeline until it meets a restriction or bend in the pipeline and basically knock it apart."

In addition, NRC has started investigating the possibility of using hydrates to capture and store carbon dioxide, thereby reducing the build-up of this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. "Carbon dioxide is one of the gases that can form a hydrate structure quite readily, and scientists have proposed storing a huge bed of CO2 hydrates under the ocean floor, where it would be stable," says Dr. Ratcliffe. "How feasible this would be is another question."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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