back to news Nov. 3, 2014

Ohio State Earth Scientists Part of $58 Million Effort to Study Potential New Energy Source

Ann Cook and Derek Sawyer, Earth sciences’ assistant professors, are part of a research team led by the University of Texas, Austin, that has been awarded approximately $58 million to analyze deposits of frozen methane under the Gulf of Mexico.

The four year grant will allow researchers to advance scientific understanding of methane hydrate, a substance found in abundance beneath the ocean floor and under Arctic permafrost. It has enormous potential to increase the world’s energy supply. Ohio State’s piece of that funding is $1,025,949.

Cook and Sawyer and their research team will be analyzing the geophysical data (seismic and well log) from the Gulf of Mexico to pick the best sites to drill for methane hydrate with the object of recovering methane hydrate samples. Recovering methane hydrate is a difficult challenge. To date, only a few samples have been recovered from the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980’s.

"I think we have the best job, personally,” Cook said. “Other people have to worry about all of the logistics, money and contracting, but we get to do the science! We also will be a part of the drilling cruise, which will probably happen in 2017.”

Sawyer explained that gas hydrate looks like ice, but is really a combination of H20 and methane where the H20 forms a lattice structure around the methane.

“Solid gas hydrate forms under certain conditions of temperature and pressure that are found in sediments below the ocean floor, generally much shallower in the sediment column than where we drill for traditional oil and gas deposits,” he said.

Cook noted that “Gas hydrate could be a future source of economic methane — we know there is a lot of it on the planet — but we still don't understand many things about it. For example: I say 'a lot' of gas hydrate on the planet, because the best estimates for the total amount of gas hydrate vary by several orders of magnitude.

“One reason for this is we are still learning how best to identify gas hydrate using geophysics. Another issue is we don't know how gas migrates through a zone where it is commonly 'frozen' or solidified into hydrate.”

Cook and Sawyer are delighted to be helping hunt for answers and hope that other Ohio State researchers may be allowed to join in.

“Right now, we have money for a student and a postdoc to work on the project with us, but we would love to talk with any other interested students and postdocs.

“Also, many more scientists — such as microbiologists, chemists and geologists — still need to be contracted through the grant. Basically, there is a lot of opportunity for additional Ohio State researchers to get involved!”

—Sandi Rutkowski