The Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,200th Meeting

President William Saalbach called the 2,200th meeting to order at 8:18 pm January 20, 2006. The minutes of the 2,198th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Saalbach then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Bhakta Rath of the Naval Research Laboratory. Mr. Rath spoke on “An Abundance of Frozen Clean Energy from the Sea.”

Mr. Rath said he was pleased with the opportunity to discuss this extremely important issue. He began by discussing needs and the alternatives.

The world currently uses energy at the rate of about 13 terawatts. The largest part of it comes from oil, next coal, and then natural gas. Nuclear fission is a distant fourth, hydro a very distant fifth, and sources such as solar and wind are nominal.

He showed a curve of oil production in the lower 48 states. It peaked in 1970. It has declined substantially and is now under one/half its peak. This is called the Hubbert peak, after geophysicist M. King Hubbert. Though controversial, the prediction he made has proved fairly accurate. The world production peak is harder to pin down. The United States Geological Survey predicts 2010 is when it will peak and that by 2050 it will be a small fraction of what it will be in 2010. He quoted a president of ExxonMobil who said that by 2015 the world needs to find eight gallons of new oil production for each one used today.

Of natural gas, 72% of reserves are in the Middle East. In 1980, 4% of our natural gas was imported, in 1998, 14%, and in 2003, 20% was imported.

Some hope hydrogen will replace other fuels. Mr. Rath said hydrogen use faces enormous technological challenges. They include how to produce it, how to distribute it, how to store it, how to convert it to electricity, how to contain it for end use, and how to detect it. It is difficult to detect, notoriously leak-prone, and very dangerous. It has a ratio of energy to volume that is only 1/4 that of gasoline, so it cannot be used in planes, although he did show a whimsical concept of a pregnant-looking airliner with a big bulge of extra fuselage for hydrogen. Moreover, all means of producing hydrogen use fuel.

Wind energy requires large windmills located where there is good wind. The wind, unfortunately, happens to be in the part of the country where there are the fewest people. Millions of windmills would be required and the transfer cable could cost $79,000/km.

Tidal power is another possibility, and it would have a side benefit, reduction of coastal flooding. There are not very many sites that are suitable, however, and the transport of the energy would again be a major problem.

A gallon of liquid fuel can be produced from 24 pounds of coal. This, actually, is what Germany did during World War II, when they lost access to the North African oil fields.

The U.S. Navy uses 40 million barrels of oil a year. To produce that from coal would require mining 20 million tons. This would involve problems of transportation and disposal of solid waste and carbon dioxide.

So the alternatives all have problems – not enough, land use, cost, safety, pollution, national security, and so on.

Then, turning to his main point, he showed an enticing picture of something that looked like burning ice. This was a picture of a methane hydrate crystal, giving off methane, which burned readily as a gas. Incidentally, it yields less CO2 than any other fossil fuel.

More than half of the organic carbon in the earth's crust is in the form of gas hydrates, on and offshore, he estimated. These nice little rocks are a type of clathrate.

He presented distributions of pressure and temperature that showed the depths and temperatures where these clathrates exist, which he called the hydrate stability zone.

He showed a map of where they have been located so far. The United States appears to be lucky again. It seems there is an abundance of them around Alaska, off California, in the Gulf of Mexico, and even a fair amount of the stuff off the east coast. There appears to be a great deal of it elsewhere in the world, also.

The most important sources of data have been seismic studies. There have also been geochemical studies, electrographic, heat flow, micro- and macro-biology, and drilling studies. There are three possible ways to harvest it. One would be to pump the gas out of the substrates. Another would be to inject steam into the substrates to release the gas. Another would be to inject methanol into the substrates to release the gas. There are places where it is bubbling off naturally. Bubbles on the surface of the ocean can be seen, and there are craters in the ocean floor resulting from gasification.

Research challenges remain. They include construction of a collection system to capture the gas once it is produced down there.

Mr. Rath offered to answer questions. He was asked what would be the cost to a million BTU. He wasn't sure. There are some factors yet to be determined, such as working on the continental margins and the problem of deep and horizontal drilling.

Several questions related to why no action has been taken, no research funding from Congress or development or exploration by big energy companies. Mr. Rath, a scientist, said Congress is beyond his understanding. He and his staff have informed Congressional staff of these facts. He spoke of the problems related to collaborative research between agencies. He said that high fuel prices are not necessarily a problem for big energy companies.

People brought up some energy alternatives he had not mentioned, such as tar sands and shale oil. He acknowledged these as having potential, but they put a heavy burden on the atmosphere. They also require great amounts of water, particularly for shale oil, which is located where there is little water.

After the talk, Mr. Saalbach announced the next meeting. He made the usual housekeeping announcements. He invited guests to consider joining the Society. Finally, he adjourned the 2,200th meeting at 9:50 pm to the social hour.

The weather: Rather clear, perhaps 10% coverage by wispy clouds.
The temperature: 8°C
Attendance: 46

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

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