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May 12, 2004
Gas hydrates: a gift wrapped in problems

This piece of good news comes with some caveats. So [t]read with caution.

Buried deep along India’s 7,500 km of coastline is a vast fuel reserve that can meet our needs for several centuries. Global reserves of gas hydrates—the ‘fuel’ under reference´┐Ż are estimated to be “twice the known oil and gas reserves of the world.” That quote is from Mr Harsh K Gupta, Secretary to Indian government’s Department of Ocean Development. He was addressing the media in Jan, 2004 during a seminar in Chennai on “New frontiers in marine bioscience research”.

Gupta was referring to hydrates of methane. Well, what are they? They are part of a chemical formation called gas hydrates in which a core of methane is trapped in a cage of water molecules. They are ice like crystals that lie deep in the oceans, at very high pressures and very low temperatures found at ocean depths greater than 500 metres. Source of this methane is biogenic; from the organic detritus that descend to the ocean floor where bacteria act on them to generate methane.

The interesting thing is about these hydrates is that at great pressures and low temperatures in the oceans, they are very stable crystals. If mined and brought to atmospheric conditions they produce 160 times their volume of methane. And that is what is seducing energy hunters. Methane is a readily usable fuel.

Now to the caveats. What are they? First, the technology to mine these hydrates is at its infancy. It may need about twenty years of patient, sensitive development before we have a mature extraction technology. India has entered into an agreement with Russia and some exploratory work has begun.

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