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Warning Signs on the Ocean Floor: China and India Exploit Icy Energy Reserves

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Part 2: Can a Potential Curse Be Transformed into a Blessing?

Indian researchers discovered a 132-meter (433-foot) thick layer of methane hydrate in the Krishna-Godavari Basin. "One of the thickest that's ever been found in the world," says Malcolm Lall, the director of the Indian gas hydrate program. The team has also been successful in the Andaman Islands, were they discovered, 600 meters (984 feet) beneath the ocean floor, a layer of frozen methane embedded in ash sediments from prehistoric volcanic eruptions. "This too is a first," says Lall.

But many scientists see the flames licking out of samples in Indian and Chinese laboratories as a warning sign. They fear that one day the methane from the ocean floor will heat up the world's climate to a far greater extent than coal, oil and natural gas do today.

This is precisely what scientists at the Institute for Marine Research (GEOMAR) based in the northern German seaport of Kiel want to avert. They hope to be able to transform a potential curse into a blessing before it's too late. They envision a method whereby the flammable gas would be extracted from the sediment with the help of carbon dioxide.

"The carbon dioxide could be obtained from the exhaust gases of coal power plants, for instance," says Klaus Wallmann, the direct of a research project known as SUGAR, which was recently formed to study the issue. What he proposes sounds almost too good to be true: producing fuel while sequestering greenhouse gas deep beneath the ocean floor -- eliminating energy bottlenecks while simultaneously putting the brakes on global warming.

Wallmann and his colleagues base their theories on a reaction scientists noticed more than a decade ago. When a certain amount of pressure is applied to the cage-like crystal structure, carbon dioxide can penetrate the layer of ice, at which point it displaces the methane. Then a new cage of frozen water molecules forms around the carbon dioxide. "This behavior has already been demonstrated in laboratory experiments," says Wallmann.

He is also impressed by the ratio at which the gases are exchanged. For each dissolved molecule of methane, up to five molecules of carbon dioxide disappear into the ice cage.

In addition, says Wallmann, the ice encases the CO2 in a more stable manner than it does the methane. "I cannot imagine a better way to sequester carbon dioxide," Wallmann explains, adding: "We are pursuing this approach with great interest." German industrial companies like BASF, Ruhrgas and E.on are also interested, and are donating money and expertise to promote the study of the sequestration technique. "Politicians are more difficult to convince that this is a good idea," says Wallmann.

According to Wallmann, research into the use of renewable energies to avert global warming is considered sexy, whereas very few politicians are interested in sequestration. "It's seen as a fig leaf to save the fossil fuel age from its demise," says Wallmann, sighing. But, he adds, mankind will eventually have no other choice but to sequester greenhouse gases.

Wallmann fears that the topic is being ignored altogether at the Bali conference, which he considers naïve and irresponsible. "What's happening in China and India takes the climate negotiations into the realm of the absurd." Indeed, officials in Delhi and Beijing expect their geologists to produce results that will enable them to begin the systematic mining of methane hydrate within the next decade.

For their part, the German researchers hope to have fully refined their method by then. Wallmann envisions, in the not-too-distant future, tankers filled with CO2 heading out to sea to pump their climate-damaging cargo into the depths.

Naturally, even Wallmann knows that this is a highly optimistic vision. This helps explain the lack of enthusiasm among the Chinese and Indian scientists he encounters at conferences for a technology still a long way from completion. "They are afraid that the West wants to prevent them from rapid extraction of methane hydrate."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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