Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire

In the age of such quality cinema as Himmatwala I present to you another... non- movie related post. Fortunately this post would also not cover the (almost)eponymous television series, or even the eponymous series of books. Then, dear reader, you would ask me in a sudden bout of ennui, what is this post related to. And I find myself typing in methane hydrate. And what, you ask?

Methane hydrate.

For the scientific ones among you, this would probably be a bit baffling, after all, methane, a thick foul smelling gas is not something you would expect to find in hydrated form. And yet, a complete family of hydrocarbons exists in a hydrated, solid form. So you could fully expect to find ethane hydrate and propane hydrate if you decided to go on a full fledged survey of the Earth's crust. Methane hydrate just happens to be the most common one, and this is in no small reason due to the comparative size of its molecule. Now methane is pretty much the smallest hydrocarbon you could think of, and any mineral formed by a eutectic reaction at high pressure would in fact involve some amount of diffusion into a lattice. So with the water lattice, and yes it does form a lattice thanks to crystallization at high pressures, methane would try to diffuse as far as possible into interstitial spaces. Think of this as trying to force mercury into a sponge. And ice of course has quite a few, especially as there isn't anything much to keep the ice together, unlike water which has a bunch of inter molecular hydrogen bonds going for it. This is also why ice floats on water(not the methane part... the mindless chatter after).

This means that a lot of methane would in fact diffuse into water which would then solidify under pressure to form something like ice, but something that burns. And you would respond with a so what? I do that with my camphor everyday.

So everything. Consider the fact that the reserves of carbon in methane clathrates(a fancier sounding name cooked up by bald men in aprons) is about twice the reserves of carbon in ALL fossil fuels. Also consider that this burns with almost no residue(there isn't much to it when you burn ice) and is also easier to transport than LPG and you have an energy phenomenon on your hands. This is energy that, if exploited properly could put an end to all our energy woes.

And if you're thinking that's too good to be true it probably is. It is tough to extract methane hydrate and the risks involved are considerable. Forget the environmental impact of fracking for shale gas, or exploiting the Alberta tar sands, this would be right up there as an ecological disaster if it were to go wrong. You see, methane is far more potent, global warming wise than almost anything. All the cars in the world do not contribute as much to global warming as the methane in the farts of livestock. Methane is the single most important reason for global warming periods in the past. And this would not be by a comfy 2 degrees on average, but by much more. Of course, methane is found in higher concentrations in ice beds, which means that as it gets hotter, more and more will be released as the ice melts, which would cause more ice to melt. And so on and so forth.

How we exploit this will probably be driven by the forces of economics than by any real scientific thought or common sense. Which is pretty scary considering the fact that the forces of economics are pseudo forces that would make Newton turn in his grave and mumble incoherently. As the price of oil continues to rise and the supply of natural gas continues to be so readily available as to be economically unsound the world will look for a middle path. A sort of compromise, if you will, between easy availability and difficulty of extraction. And we'd probably die in a big flood if the heat doesn't get us first.

Make sure you burn your fair share of ice first.

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