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Monday, March 18, 2013

THE TRUTH ABOUT METHANE

I've been intrigued about methane for some time now.  This gas could serve as a "cleaner" transition to the sustainables over the next few decades, or kill us all!!!  Read about THE VENUS SYNDROME.

Well, one truth is that methane, four hydrogen molecules surrounding one carbon, is the simplest hydrocarbon:


Stick in an oxygen molecule, and you have methanol, the simplest alcohol:


Biomethanol is methanol produced from biomass, which, of course would be gasified and the O, or oxygen, inserted through a catalytic process.  I've long been pontificating about the biomethanol economy, but that is a matter of another posting.  Add a second carbon and couple more hydrogens and you have ethanol, or the drinkable alcohol.

Most (90%) of natural gas is methane.  Natural gas has made a rather sudden comeback because of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  A glance at the top box in the right column shows that our society is mostly (88%) dependent on those odious (when combusted, carbon dioxide is emitted, causing our atmosphere to warm) fossil fuels:  crude oil, coal and natural gas.

There is yet another kind of methane, something called marine methane hydrates, or clathrates, located at the bottom of our oceans:  methane captured in ice. Over the billions of years they have naturally formed when life at the euphotic zone (near surface) of our oceans perish, drop to the bottom and decay into carbon dioxide, methane and minerals.  Most of this gas actually comes not from seafood that die, but, rather, bacteria and other microorganisms, for there are more of them in weight than, say, fish and seaweed.  The conditions at the bottom of the sea are such that the  high pressure and cool temperature (4 C above freezing) capture the methane into a kind of cage (left above).  The generally accepted surmisal is that the energy from methane at ocean depths is twice that of all the known coal, oil and natural gas.  I take partial blame for this estimate because 22 years ago I was asked to join a group of experts in Berlin to write a book entitled, Use and Misuse of the Ocean (a very good copy is available through Amazon.com for $900--anybody care for mine??)  I was part of the team that wrote the chapter on marine methane hydrates (MMH), and we are many times quoted for this ratio.  Frankly, it was a wild guess.

In any case, should MMH be harvested or left alone?  Let sleeping does lie could well be the safest option.  However, Japan, faced with a horrendous energy problem, has taken the world lead in tapping this fossil fuel in their Exclusive Economic Zone.  MMH is Japan's Holy Grail for their energy future.  However, there is also a $29 million American project exploring the North Slope of Alaska.  Yes, this ice burns (right)!

In any case, we already know that the tundra is leaking methane because of climate warming, and so is the ocean.  Perhaps harvesting this gas might be better than trying to keep it in place.  Most of this clathrate deposit, though, is at considerable depth that you would think they should be safe.

However, these hydrates are at dynamic equilibrium with their environment.  Any change (warming or earthquakes) though, could be catastrophic because guess what happens to gas and ice at the bottom of a column of water?  They rise!  The big deal about methane leaking into the atmosphere is that one molecule of methane is 20-60 times (depends on concentration and time) more dangerous than a molecule of carbon dioxide.  The fear is that of a cascade effect where a series of earthquakes at the Pacific Ring of Fire could jiggle a lot of MMH to the surface, triggering a sudden uptick in the atmospheric temperature, which then would affect the entire ocean over time, where bottom conditions are already metastable.

My Chapter 5 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth (Kindle edition of the whole book is only $3.99) is on The Venus Syndrome, the worst case scenario affecting the status of MMH as activated by global warming.  The Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago known as the Great Dying could well have been caused by the sudden release of MMH.  Who knows, perhaps Venus could well have suffered this fate and never recovered, for methane over time oxidizes into carbon dioxide, which now covers that planet.  The surface of Venus has an atmospheric pressure 92 times that of Earth and is at a temperature of 863 F.

So what is the truth about methane?  Fracking will mean the world will use more and more until we reach peak natural gas or run into an environmental wall.  Remember that methane is a fossil fuel and only adds to the Greenhouse Effect.  However, coal consumption will soon drop, which is good, for coal produces twice the carbon dioxide of methane in the production of electricity.  Methane, thus, might well serve as the best transition to the future as the renewables become more cost effective.  But can we prevent The Venus Syndrome?

Whoops, this is Monday and I promised to keep things upbeat on this day.  Well, I had a dream about methane last night and just had to post on this subject.  Sorry.  Come back next week, for that is the eve of my next global adventure.  However, let me end with a cartoon by Don Landgren, for it is true that cows are a significant source of methane:


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