Recent surveys indicate that hydrogen-rich methane hydrates, found in undersea basins, are enormous energy resources. The geoacoustic properties of hydrate-containing sea floor sediments must be characterized for naval operations. Methane hydrates also present a potentially formidable environmental hazard. The unintentional release of the methane--a potent greenhouse gas--sequestered in these solids, either through offshore oil recovery or outgassing induced by ocean warming, could affect global climate and the local marine environment.
THe Hawaii Natural Energy Institute's (HNEI's) methane hydrate research is being pursued in partnership with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Funding support is coming from the Hawaii Energy and Environmental Technology Initiative (HEET). This partnership offers extensive technical resources and expertise that is being applied in complementary laboratory and field studies on a host of science and engineering topics.
The long-term goal of the HNEI methane hydrate research program is to develop environmentally benign technologies to utilize the enormous energy potential of methane hydrate deposits. A secondary goal is to understand the role these natural hydrates play in the carbon cycle and the impact that resource exploitation and large outgassing events could have on the marine environment and global climate.
Research is focusing on the evaluation of methane hydrates as an in situ energy source for naval and other subsea applications. Laboratory and engineering investigations of hydrate destabilization phenomena (to release methane for subsequent energy conversion steps) and benthic fuel cells are underway.
International research and development collaboration has always been an important component of HNEI's activities. Toward this end, significant effort is being expended to establish international research partnerships on methane hydrates. Scientists and engineers from government agencies, universities, and companies in the United States, Korea, Japan, Norway, and Chile have agreed to work together with HNEI and the Naval Research Laboratory.
Methane Hydrates Workshop
An expert workshop on methane hydrates was held in Honolulu in March 2001. The workshop was organized by HNEI and the Naval Research Laboratory, in cooperation with the Hokkaido National Industrial Research Institute of Japan's Agency of Industrial Science and Technology, and Inha University of Korea. Other sponsors included the Office of Naval Research-International Field Office, National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, and Pacific International Center for High Technology Research. The principal workshop objectives were: (a) review past, ongoing, and planned methane hydrates research and development projects and programs; (b) share information on budgets and research resources and priorities in different countries; and (c) establish linkages for domestic and international partnering.
The Second International Workshop on Methane Hydrates will be held at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C. on October 29-31, 2002. Reports on the status of methane hydrates research and development will be presented by representatives from a number of different countries. Technical sessions will examine six primary topics: (1) methane hydrates resource characterization and distribution; (2) biological influences on hydrates; (3) hydrate kinetics; (4) environmental concerns; (5) methane storage and shipping; and (6) international interdisciplinary scientific network.
A hydrates synthesis facility to produce uniform hydrate samples for laboratory analysis and testing is near completion.
A biological benthic fuel cell  for long-term, low-level (of the order of 1 watt) subsea electrical power generation is being developed. Low-pressure (atmospheric) tests are underway utilizing sediment collected at the Blake Ridge hydrate field and graphite and platinum electrodes. Sediment bacteria that play the key roles in the operation of the biological fuel cell are being cultured for analysis. Tests at conditions representative of the deep ocean will be conducted later this year in several pressure chambers that have been constructed specifically for this program.
An engineering design study will be performed to assess underwater solid oxide fuels cells, employing methane hydrates as the energy source, for higher level in situ power generation applications.