Forget Oil Shortages: 'There's Enough Methane in the Sea for 1,000 Years'

But we can't use it. Now a new innovation by Israeli-American scientist Brian Rosen may enable man to get his paws on it, too.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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This oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is burning off methane, which is a complete waste, say TAU scientists.
This oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is burning off methane, which is a complete waste, say TAU scientists.Credit: Bloomberg
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

"There's enough methane at the bottom of the sea to meet the world's energy needs for 1,000 years, at current energy usage," asserts Brian Rosen, a post-doctorate at Tel Aviv University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

That sounds like good news, given reports about the world having passed peak oil – most projections put global reserves at 40 or 50 years. The rub is that this methane locked in gas pockets beneath the seabed is expensive to access and tricky to get back to shore where it can be refined and utilized as fuel, says Rosen, who will be starting as a senior assistant professor at the beginning of 2015.

If the methane could be harvested near the coast, that would be one thing. Most of it isn't. Long deep-sea pipelines are no solution. They're expensive to lay down – about $3 million per kilometer in shallow water, and $6 million per kilometer in the deep sea. In deep water, the pipes have a nasty tendency to buckle and there are leaks and other breakdowns in the pitch-black depths, which is a harsh, corrosive environment if ever there was one.

Maintenance, in short, costs a fortune and improvements to deep-sea pipeline technology, from how pipes are laid to the materials comprising them, don't solve these core difficulties.

Another method is to liquefy the gas where it's found and ship the cooled fluid. But methane liquefies at -164 degrees Celsius. Then the sub-zero liquid has to be shipped to shore by tankers specially equipped to handle such cold stuff. The liquid methane gets converted back into gas on shore, or gets transported inland by tricked-out trucks. It's all very difficult and expensive.

Rosen, a chemical engineer who made aliyah from Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, in the spring of 2013, is working on a different, win-win solution: developing new catalysts to take carbon dioxide and combine it with methane, creating a liquid fuel precursor at low cost. "His idea is original at both the academic and international levels," says Prof. Noam Eliaz, head of the Materials department.

A catalyst is a material that can drive a reaction faster without being consumed in the process.

Huge upside: both carbon dioxide [CO2] and methane are greenhouse gases. The fuel precursor is a mix of CO and hydrogen, from which liquid fuels can be synthesized.

Converting CO2 from greenhouse gas to boon

"Basically, the entire chemical industry emits carbon dioxide as a waste product into the atmosphere, because there's nothing else to do with it. It has no market value," says Rosen.

Not that engineers haven't been trying. But present methods to convert CO2 into something useful require too much energy.

Rosen's doctoral research involved cracking the secret of reducing the energy needed to convert CO2 into CO (one of the components of the liquid fuel precursor) by an economically sensible process. Now he's working on the methane element.

His secret is to find catalysts that don't get choked up with carbon deposits, a process called coking, which renders the catalysts useless.

Not only could he change the world: for Israel his inventions are of keen interest following the discovery of massive amounts of oil and gas in the Mediterranean seabed – the deep-sea Leviathan and Tamar fields.

Many remote fields like those found in the Mediterranean are being drilled for oil, and any methane found there gets uselessly burned off (those are the flames one sees in pictures of oil rigs), because the fields are so far from land and there are no existing technologies to utilize it economically. Yet the two fields are believed to have 27 trillion cubic feet of methane, says Rosen.

Rosen has begun testing his catalysts, and big business has noticed.

"Oil may be running out," Rosen says. "Big companies like Shell and Sasol are investing billions in gas-to-liquid plants, projecting this will be the technology that replaces oil drilling. Our hope as scientists is to develop new technologies to support these projects."

When it comes to the oil and gas industry, Israel never had the resources to be a major player, he points out. "It had to rely on others for technologies and catalysts. Now we have the resources – and Israel needs to develop its own technology in-house for the sake of national security due to the dynamic political topography of the region."

Brian Rosen: The methane's there. Now, how can we get it?Credit: Brian Rosen, Tel Aviv University

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