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Our Take: Oceanic Methane Hydrates, the Next Energy Source?

Oceanic methane hydrates — ever hear of them? They’re about to disrupt the global energy system in a potentially huge way. The resources are widespread, off many coasts. The race to commercialize them is on, with winners expected within five years. However, several factors stand in the way of their full development. First, there’s a near-total lack of regulation. Second, methane is a volatile gas; a major leak or an explosion would have major environmental impact. Also, methane is a carbon-based fossil fuel; its combustion produces CO2, the major driver of climate change. The world is trying to wean itself off fossil fuels, replacing them with renewable energy resources such as wind and solar. The transition is going slowly, but must accelerate to reach a 45% reduction by 2030 and achieve a target of close to zero carbon emissions by 2050 if the world is to avoid some very challenging even deadly effects of global heating. Third is cost, which is still unknown. If methane hydrates can’t beat the ever-diminishing costs of wind and solar plus storage, their future is limited, at least initially. As proficiency, efficiency, and scale bring down the cost of methane hydrates, they might become competitive in certain situations. However, time is not on their side. The window for any and all fossil fuels is closing; neither the climate nor the public will stand for much more heating and pollution. Even though it is emission free, the window for nuclear fission has already closed for cost and radioactive waste disposal reasons. The window for nuclear fusion remains open a crack because, although much delayed and very costly, it promises almost unlimited emission-free energy without the near-eternal waste storage problem of fission. If there is to be another global energy disruptor, it’s most likely to be hydrogen fuel cells. Researchers have recently developed ways to produce hydrogen from water cheaply, using common metallic catalysts rather than expensive rare ones, and using renewable energy to break water into its component parts without generating emissions. The fuel cells’ only emission is water. So while the next transition in transportation — electric vehicles (EVs)replacing emission-spewing internal combustion engine  (ICE) vehicles — is well under way, within a decade or two EVs will have to share the road with hydrogen-fueled vehicles. Although they are novel and seductive, methane hydrates have a very limited future, either in power plants or vehicles.

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