Methane Hydrate

I got myself into a little bit of a twitter argument. I saw a tweet from an anti-green evangelist claiming that green tech was expensive and Global Warming is a non-issue. Every time I hear that argument, I think of this comic. To me, it sounds like an argument against paying for quality. Yes, quality costs money. Anything that is worth having is worth the effort. Changing an industry takes effort, that’s a poor excuse for not doing it.

Why pay for good things?

Anyway, the claim was that there are plenty of hydrocarbons to go around, so why worry? Why spend money on anything else but Oil and Gas? Here’s the twitter conversation so you can get the background.

mhconvo

I’ll take you up on that! I’ve never heard of Methane Hydrate, so it’s worth a look. I’m willing to stretch my knowledge and see what’s out there. So what is Methane Hydrate? Basically it’s ice that’s trapped methane inside a crystal formation. It has a very exotic name, but at the end of the day, the resource is methane, something we are very familiar with.

I’m going to do a quick comparison between this resource and two others. It’s obviously not exhaustive and I’ve omitted quite a bit of information. This whole post came about from a conversation on Twitter, so I’m not going to sink very many hours into it. If you are looking for info on resources, I recommend Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. The full text is available here.

Here are the resources I’m going to look at.

  • Methane Hydrate – Extension of the current Oil and Gas industry
  • Solar – Up and coming contender
  • Nuclear Fusion – A hail mary resource

What Are They?

Methane Hydrate is a hydrocarbon that is trapped in ice formations. It exists as a solid under certain conditions and releases the methane when melted. The hydrocarbons come from decomposed animal and plant life from millions of years ago. Because hydrocarbons are dead animals and plants, in a way, they are concentrated solar energy. (sun -> plants -> animals -> dead -> million years -> hydrocarbons) Methane is usually burned to create energy, but can also be used in fuel cells.

Solar is.. well, the sun. More specifically the radiation from the sun that fuels all life on Earth.  There are a few different ways of harvesting solar energy, I’ll stick with photo-voltaic cells.

Nuclear Fusion is the golden child of the energy industry. Basically engineers create a mini-sun on earth and directly harvest it’s energy. Not to be confused with traditional nuclear energy  fusion uses light atoms and fuses them together, not spiting heavy atoms. This isn’t science fiction,  you can make a fusion reactor at home for about 5k. Most of these reactors use a D-D or D-T fuel cycle.

Energy Density

So, how much energy can each source produce? This gets complicated as the sources are difficult to directly compare.

In one cubic meter of methane hydrate there is 160 m^3 of methane. (source). This means each cubic meter of ice holds 6240 MJ of energy. That’s a hell of a lot. Hydrocarbon energy concentration is part of the reason it’s so valuable.

Solar energy is different depending on where you are in the world and if it’s day time. The energy hitting the top of the atmosphere is about 1,400 W/m^2. On earth, the average is about 250 W/m^2. That gives us about 21.6 MJ of energy per square meter per day. There is a lot more in space, and the reason spacecraft have solar panels.

These guys estimate there is  1.78 g of lithium in every cubic meter of seawater and 30 grams of deuterium. Using my mediocre chemistry skills, that comes out to 1.6*10^12 MJ per cubic meter of water. That’s a few hundred million times more dense than methane hydrate.

Extraction of the Resource

Methane uses semi-established methods. We know how to make drilling rigs and pipelines  but getting at the ice is a different story. It’s like oil sands vs drilling; the end product is the same but the method is very different. Lessons learned and techniques can be ported over, but you can’t directly use the previous technology. Looking at the billions of dollars spent in Alberta to develop the oil sands, you can expect similar numbers for hydrate extraction. (Here is a good source to learn more)

Solar, it’s pretty easy, install panels, point at sun, extract. It’s passive and automatic.

We can get lithium from sea water. Using a lot of the same technology we use for distilling sea water into fresh water.

Energy Reserve

So, how much of the stuff is there? In 2008 the world used 474 EJ of energy. I’m assuming we stay at 2008 consumption levels  and I’m ignoring a whole rats nest of other variables.

According to these guys, there is 74 744 Gt of CH4 in ocean hydrates. 4.4 * 10^16 m^3 of the stuff.  That’s on the very high end of global estimates, and no guarantee we can extract that much. In any event, that’s 1,716,000 EJ of energy, giving us 3620 years of energy assuming we used every last drop on earth.

Solar isn’t going to run out for 5 billion years, so that’s the good news on solar. It will last as long as we have a sun. Yes, it gets cloudy and night time does happen. A world network would solve most of those issues; it’s always sunny somewhere. Here’s a map of how much land mass that would take.

Fusion has a similar length as solar  If we get D-D reactions up and running, we are set for life. The available resources will power the earth for a million years. The fun part about this is that this is just including the resources on earth. Without exaggeration  the fusion fuel available in our solar system will power a Human Galactic Empire for millions of years.

DD Fusion

So what?

I have to shake my head when Oil & Gas evangelists tell me that there are plenty of resources available. Coal companies are very proud of the fact that there are a 100 odd years of coal reserves. The Oil Sands folks claim they are second in the world in reserves only to Saudi Arabia. When you factor in how much of that resource is recoverable, it’s only a few hundred years of energy left and they wave that flag proudly. We have resources that will last millions of times longer. We have energy resources that will last thousands of times longer than the whole of human recorded history.

For those people who are waving the Oil & Gas flag, I have to ask why. Bud Lyght, answer me this: with the knowledge you know have, why choose short term solutions when we could have unlimited energy for longer than either of us can imagine?

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