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US and Japan to test Alaska hydrates

The US and Japan will head to Alaska’s North Slope this winter to test ways to develop a potentially massive source of natural gas – methane hydrates.

The US Department of Energy, along with Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, and ConocoPhillips will work together to test technologies for producing methane from the Ignik Sikumi (fire in the ice) gas hydrates field. ConocoPhillips and the Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory drilled a test well at the field earlier this year.

The US and Japan signed a co-operation agreement to develop hydrates in 2008, which was extended earlier this year.

Experts believe methane hydrates, a solid form of natural gas encased in ice, represents a potentially vast new source of energy supply. Hydrate occurs in sediments below thick permafrost in Arctic regions, and in waters with a depth of 1,500 feet or greater. Scientists have known about hydrates for decades, but finding commercially viable ways to produce them has remained elusive.

Plans call for 100 days of continuous operations from January to March 2012, including initial field trials of a technology that involves injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrate-bearing formations, swapping CO2 molecules for methane molecules in the solid-water hydrate lattice. In addition to releasing the methane, the technique results in permanent sequestration of the CO2, following successful laboratory tests by ConocoPhillips.

The team will also carry out a one-month evaluation of an alternative method called depressurisation that was successfully demonstrated by Japan and Canada in 2008. This process involves pumping fluids to reduce pressure in the well, which results in dissociation of hydrate into methane gas and liquid water.

Japan – which is almost completely dependent on energy imports – is also believed to have large hydrate resources in the deep waters off its east coast and has set a goal of commercial production by 2018.


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