by guest blogger, Stan Thompson
Long before the California Gold Rush, there was a North Carolina Gold Rush. The land right under the feet of President Obama and delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention was riddled with ancient gold mining tunnels. Mine waste tailings were so plentiful that eventually they were used as construction filler; quite literally Charlotte’s streets were “paved with gold.”
A few miles north, near present-day Concord, NC, a boy named Conrad Reed found a curious rock in a streambed. He brought it home, where it was used for three years as a doorstop—until a visitor told the family what it was: a 17-pound nugget of solid gold!
The US Department of Energy has made a similar discovery in Alaska. In a joint field trial with Japan and others, they’ve found a way to extract natural gas safely from methane hydrate—an almost unimaginable energy cornucopia if it can be recovered without leaking heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere.
May 2, 2012: “U.S. and Japan Complete Successful Field Trial of Methane Hydrate Production Technologies WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced today the completion of a successful, unprecedented test of technology in the North Slope of Alaska that was able to safely extract a steady flow of natural gas from methane hydrates – a vast, entirely untapped resource that holds enormous potential for U.S. economic and energy security…
The team injected a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen into the formation, and demonstrated that this mixture could promote the production of natural gas. Ongoing analyses of the extensive datasets acquired at the field site will be needed to determine the efficiency of simultaneous CO2 storage in the reservoirs.“
But the happy methane miners may have discovered the equivalent of Conrad Reed’s elegant doorstop. The real “gold” they discovered rests in the ability to inject CO2 back into the ground.
If the quantities work out right, extracted hydrate methane could be steam-reformed on-site into hydrogen and the waste byproduct—CO2—returned safely into the ground as part of the continuous extraction process. The take-way output of the process would not be natural gas but rather pure, zero-carbon-footprint hydrogen. At the low prices the high process volume seems to imply, the H2 could be burned in inexpensive H2ICE (hydrogen internal combustion) engines, displacing considerable gasoline and diesel demand, well before fuel cell perfection is tidied-up and costs come down.
Cars, planes and hydrail trains produced to run on H2 from methane hydrates could segue at leisure from “extracted” hydrogen to renewable H2 sources so that, eventually, the remaining fossil methane hydrate could be conserved as a feedstock resource for future generations. As the transition to renewables progressed, climate risk from methane hydrate drilling leakage would diminish proportionally.
Let’s hope Japan, DOE, et. al., don’t take three years to realize their methane doorstop is really a huge nugget…of zero-carbon hydrogen gold!