Aug. 31, 1998, 11:26PM
Energetic thinkers have lots of ideas for creating power
By MICHAEL DAVISCopyright 1998 Houston Chronicle
Imagine making cheap fuel from lawn clippings, driving a car that could go thousands of miles without refueling, or harvesting frozen natural gas from the ocean floor.
While some of these ideas may sound a little far out, they are all the subject of funded research projects seeking the next breakthrough in energy technology.
Most are not yet of practical use, but each has the potential to significantly change where we get our energy and how we use it.
"The most precious thing you can buy in energy policy is time," said Amory Lovins, director of research at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo. "The better the technologies get on the supply or demand side, the more time you have to get better still."
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Roger Sassen, has spent the last 14 years chasing one of the most obscure, but abundant forms of energy on Earth.
Sassen, the deputy director of the geochemical & environmental research group at Texas A&M University, is considered the leading authority on methane hydrates -- huge deposits of natural gas mixed with water and frozen on the ocean floor.
First discovered in 1810, methane hydrates originate as natural gas seeping up through sediments on the ocean floor. High pressure and icy temperatures cause the gas to mix with the water to form frozen outcroppings.
Methane hydrates are nothing new. For years, they have formed naturally in gas pipelines that run through cold, deep water. In pipelines, they are considered a nuisance because they clog up the lines and have to be cleaned out.
Those on the ocean floor are a potential source of natural gas. The problem is that methane hydrates -- unlike traditional gas reserves, which are confined and under pressure -- represent free gas that vaporizes as soon as it reaches the atmosphere. Before they can be commercially produced, they must be contained and transported.
Sassen believes the hydrates could be harvested in their natural environment, packaged in a blimp-like container and towed to processing plants in shallow waters.
The payoff for developing a commercial method to produce methane hydrates could be huge. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates methane hydrate reserves in U.S. waters alone could be as high as 676,000 trillion cubic feet.
Two areas, each about the size of Rhode Island, already have been mapped off the East Coast. They alone are estimated to contain 1,300 trillion cubic feet of methane, or about 70 times annual U.S. gas consumption, according to the Geological Survey.
"Ten years ago, no one really cared about this, but now there has been enough information come out about the volume of energy in gas hydrates that it has become very difficult to ignore," Sassen said. As energy consumption increases and prices rise, Sassen believes, companies will pump more money into developing methods for producing hydrates.
The hydrates are found throughout the world's waters, but the Gulf of Mexico appears to be one of the areas where they are concentrated enough to have commercial production potential.
"It is my feeling that the Gulf of Mexico will be one of the first places where they are commercially exploited," Sassen said. "The huge infrastructure of deepwater facilities and pipelines there is going to become scrap metal in 30 to 40 years unless there is something to put through that system."
Shell Oil Co. is among those funding methane hydrate research. Such research makes sense to the Houston company since the hydrates typically are found in deep water, where Shell is one of the biggest players.
"If we can solve the problem of how to economically find them and produce them, there is a tremendous resource there," said Charlie Williams, manager of well systems for Shell E&P Technology Co.
In addition to the technological hurdles in producing the fuel, there are legal problems to be ironed out -- primarily the question of whether hydrates would be covered under mineral leases struck with state or federal governments.
"There are a lot of problems to be worked out, but it's easier than going to Mars," Sassen said.
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Mike Robinson's research into creating a fuel and refinery feedstock from lawn clippings and other plant material seems like Oil Patch alchemy.
Robinson, head of chemistry studies at the University of Texas at Permian Basin in Odessa, has been working on his process for about four years. He is at the end of a three-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Using plant material, he has successfully produced a fuel similar to gasoline or diesel.
His process essentially recreates in a laboratory setting the process that takes millions of years in nature: the breakdown of plants into oil and gas. Robinson is intentionally vague when discussing his process because of the proprietary nature of his research.
"We do it in boiling water in an hour," Robinson said. "There are some catalysts and other things that make it go."
The light fuel that Robinson produces floats to the top of the water, where the honey-colored liquid is skimmed off. "It would have about a 90 octane rating," he said.
The process already is covered by one patent, another is in the approval process and another application is being drafted.
"As we have learned more about it, there are all kinds of possibilities," Robinson said. "We can tailor it and design it to make more than just a cheap fuel. We think solvents and chemicals should be the first items produced by the process because of the oil glut and because the profit margin would be better."
While oil companies have not supported Robinson's research, he said it has caught the attention of agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., which is interested in using the process to produce specialty chemicals.
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All of the major oil companies -- along with several independent firms -- are working on an economically feasible way to turn natural gas into a liquid fuel similar to diesel.
Royal Dutch/Shell and Sasol, the South African oil company, already have built small gas-to-liquids plants, but they are considered more experiments than breakthroughs.
The process, or some form of it, has been around since 1923, when it was discovered by two German scientists, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch. During World War II, it was used to produce liquid fuel from synthetic gas produced from coal.
Syntroleum Corp. of Tulsa, Okla., holds a license for a proprietary process for converting natural gas into synthetic crude oil. It's working on developing two plants using its process.
One would be an 8,000-barrel-per-day gas-to-liquids plant in Wyoming with the help of Enron Capital & Trade Resources. That plant would convert natural gas into synthetic lubricants, drilling fluids and liquid parafins. Groundbreaking for the plant is expected in the second quarter of 1999, and it is expected to begin operation in late 2001.
Syntroleum also has struck a deal with Texaco and Brown & Root for the construction of a gas-to-liquids plant in an undetermined location outside of the United States. It was originally expected to be online in the third quarter of 1999, but it will not be in operation that soon since a site has not been chosen, said Paul Weeditz, Texaco spokesman in Houston.
"We are continuing to narrow down the list of possible sites," he said. "Before we proceed, we want to make sure we have the best configuration possible. All I can say now is: Stay tuned."
Exxon has some 400 patents on its natural gas process, although it has not built a commercial production facility yet, said Ed Burwell, company spokesman in Dallas.
"We are still trying to negotiate a project in Qatar," he said. The plant Exxon has said it would like to build in Qatar would convert 500 million cubic feet of gas per day into 50,000 barrels of middle distillates, which include kerosene, light and heavy diesel oil and heating oil.
Shell, too, has a process for converting natural gas to liquids, said Charlie Williams, manager of well systems for Shell E&P Technology Co. Shell has been working on its gas-to-liquids process since the early 1970s.
The economic incentive for getting this technology into the field is to tap vast supplies of "stranded gas," natural gas reservoirs that have no pipeline connections in place. If such gas could be converted to liquid, it could be moved by ship or through an existing liquids pipeline.
Syntroleum claims it has solved the problem of mobility with a design that allows the natural gas processing hardware to be mounted on a barge or ship so the refinery can literally go to the reserves. But it has yet to build one of its plants on a barge and test it offshore, said John Ford, spokesman for the company.
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Unlike other emerging energy technologies, fuel cells may soon work their way into consumer products.
They are a variation on the high school chemistry experiment in which electricity is used to separate water into its constituents of hydrogen and oxygen. Fuel cells do the reverse: They combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity with heat and water as the only by-products.
Fuel cells range in size from the dimensions of a cinderblock to those of a small car.
In August, Shell International Oil Products and a subsidiary of Daimler-Benz struck a deal to jointly research the use of fuel cells for a new generation of cars.
Daimler-Benz, Mercedes-Benz's parent company, previously had said that it was spending $145 million to buy a stake in a company named Ballard Power Systems, which is developing fuel-cell technology for a broad range of applications, from powering cars to generating electricity on a large scale. Ford Motor Co. is a partner in that deal.
Lovins with the Rocky Mountain Institute predicts a fuel-cell powered car from a major automaker will come on the market by 2000 -- 10 years ahead of expectations.
Cars powered by fuel cells could travel as much as 5,000 miles on one charge of hydrogen before requiring refueling.
Fuel cells first came to prominence when they were used to generate electricity on space flights, but there are hundreds of other applications -- powering everything from submarines to laptop computers.
"It is the most reliable power source we know," Lovins said. "And it is about to get very cheap; cheaper than an internal combustion engine."
A prototype house in Latham, N.Y. is now running on a fuel cell supplied by Plug Power, based in Latham. The company predicts it will have commercial systems available by 2000 at a cost of about $5,000.
Other technologies that have attracted research funding and are aimed more toward traditional energy exploration and production include:
· A project to study drilling wells with lasers, using the "Star Wars" technology developed to take out missiles from space.
Ramona Graves, a professor of petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, presented her preliminary research at this year's Offshore Technology Conference. She and her partners in the project are seeking additional funding. So far, they have received about $2 million from the Gas Research Institute.
She and her research partner, Darien O'Brien, recently returned from Russia, where they spoke with scientists on using Russian laser technology.
"Additional funding looks promising," Graves said.
· A project from Baker Oil Tools and the Department of Energy to develop downhole monitors that use production pipe like an antenna to relay well data back to the surface.
The system would monitor pressure, temperature and other conditions in a well. Such information is crucial to operators when making decisions on how to optimize production and when to conduct what can be an expensive workover.
The new monitors would replace more-expensive and less-reliable systems, with wires running up the well to the surface.
The system is considered a breakthough because it would significantly reduce the hardware and installation costs of existing temperature/pressure monitors, and it marks the first step to a completely wireless monitoring and control system for producing wells.
· A method to use techniques first developed in the Falklands War for identifying submarines to analyze seismic data.
Houston-based Edge Petroleum, in partnership with Landmark Graphics and Tracor, is working to develop the process, said Susan Mostoris, a senior exploration technologist at Edge Petroleum.
"This is brand new, we haven't even seen any code for it yet," Mostoris said, referring to computer programming codes.
· A new project at Los Alamos National Laboratory that would use techniques for inspecting chemical weapons to analyze the stream of liquids produced from a well.
Oil in an underground reservoir seeps into a well from perforations in the production pipe. A precise analysis of those fluids would allow an operator to more accurately predict the viable production life of a reservoir.
The approach under development, known as swept-frequency acoustic interferometry, would enable energy companies to analyze the fluids coming from each perforation in a well.
Companies involved in that project include British Petroleum, Chevron Corp., Landmark Graphics, Mobil Corp., Texaco, Shell Oil Co., Western Atlas and Schlumberger