Cockrell School Researchers Receive $1.7M DOE Grant to Investigate Methane Hydrates

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is supplying the Cockrell School of Engineering with $1.7 million to conduct game-changing research over the next four years on methane hydrates, which could serve as our nation’s next major energy resource.

DOE is providing $5 million in grants to seven prestigious universities, and The University of Texas at Austin received the largest amount of that funding. Cockrell School assistant professor Hugh Daigle, in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, will serve as the lead project investigator and is specifically examining hydrate mechanisms for methane transport and hydrate accumulation in coarse-grained reservoirs.

“The expectation of the proposed research is to gain a better understanding of the conditions necessary for the formation of massive hydrate deposits,” Daigle said. “This in turn will advance understanding of the transport and fate of methane in the subsurface, carbon cycling associated with hydrates, and the role of a free gas phase in the formation and persistence of hydrate deposits. These topics have been investigated by other researchers, but not in an integrated, reservoir-modeling framework.”

Deposits of methane hydrates, which are lattices of ice with methane molecules locked inside, are found in sea-floor sediments off the coastlines of many countries, as well as in the Arctic permafrost. Experts estimate that more than 200,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of methane is in hydrates in the coastline areas surrounding the United States.

“We are looking at reservoirs with massive accumulations of methane hydrates,” Daigle said. “Methane hydrates can be found in continental margins all over the world, but we are specifically looking at the Walker Ridge area in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Methane hydrates have been put into the spotlight as a new energy resource, but we need to learn more about them to assess the benefits versus the risks.”

hugh daigle in lab

Petroleum and geosystems engineering assistant professor Hugh Daigle works on methane hydrate research in his lab.

What was once only considered a hazard to deep water drilling could now serve as a critical resource in the future, barring the commodity price justifies the expenses incurred by exploration and production and as long as there are no serious environmental hazards associated with production. DOE has created a strategic, long-term methane hydrates research program to build on the current knowledge, so if it proves to be a viable resource, the U.S. can hit the ground running with its development.

In addition to working with two world-renowned Cockrell School professors — Steve Bryant and Kishore Mohanty, who was recently appointed director of the Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering — Daigle is also collaborating with a team of scientists from prestigious research institutions around the country. To garner optimal research results, this team of scientists is made up of specialists in areas outside of petroleum engineering. Ann Cook is a co-project investigator from the School of Earth Sciences at The Ohio State University and Alberto Malinverno is a co-project investigator from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Unlike conventional oil and gas, methane hydrates have the potential to form quickly and locally rather than over geologic time and requiring migration.

“The biggest conclusion we hope to draw is where the gas comes from in gas hydrate reservoirs,” Cook said. “The gas might come from deep within the earth, like the gas supplied for natural gas reservoirs, or the gas might be created in a place close to where the hydrate occurs.”

A few petroleum and geosystems engineering students will also work on the methane hydrates project. Michael Nole, who is supervised by Daigle, will spend his four-year tenure in the Ph.D. program conducting research on the subject.

“Throughout the duration of the project, I will work on various enhancements to a 3-D methane hydrate reservoir model,” he said. “We hope to develop a model that can more accurately predict subsurface distributions of methane hydrates over a broader range of subsea conditions. We expect that by testing this model against acquired data, we can determine if the mechanisms of methane transport that we incorporate into the model are in fact the primary controls on the accumulation of hydrates beneath the seabed.”

The research will be directed toward one particular field area, but the results will be broadly applicable to other settings.

“The most exciting part about this research is that it has an incredible potential benefit to society,” Nole said. “It is estimated that there are greater amounts of methane hydrate reserves than there are of all other conventional petroleum reserves in the world combined. While we may not need to extract methane from these sources for a long time, it is undoubtedly worth it to society to have a better understanding of these formations.”

The Texas Tribune Interviews Hugh Daigle

Hugh Daigle discussed the potential of extracting natural gas from methane hydrates with The Texas Tribune earlier this month.

Read the interview »