Fuel from the Ocean Floor

UCI researchers will begin investigating how to recreate methyl clathrates, a trapped source of fuel found frozen on the ocean floor.

Collaborating on combustion energy projects for 20 years, two UC Irvine chairs of science have proven that it is best to look at unintuitive issues of alternative energy sources from more than one perspective.

Professors and Chairs of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Department of Physics respectively, UCI researchers Derek Dunn-Rankin and Peter Taborek are exploring alternative sources of energy trapped in the  deep-ocean floors — methane  clathrates.

According to Taborek, the amount of carbon energy stored in methane clathrates is larger than all the coal deposits, oil deposits and gas deposits in the world known by humans to exist.

Scientists are just breaking the surface of research, attempting to extract energy from these clathrates — cage-like molecular structures found deep in the Arctic permafrost and in ocean sediments around the world that contain trapped methane molecules — and these researchers are hoping to conquer the task.

The W.M. Keck Foundation granted $1 million to UCI to build a laboratory in Engineering Gateway, where Dunn-Rankin and Taborek will attempt to recreate the environment of low temperatures and high pressures of the arctic in order to learn how to make clathrates similar to the ones found in the ocean floor.

“It’s not really that complicated a lab to make, it’s just an interesting thing to think about,” Dunn-Rankin said.

According to Dunn-Rankin, the W.M. Keck Foundation Deep-Ocean Power Science Lab will provide an intuitive new view about how to extract the energy trapped in clathrates.

Understanding how to handle methane clathrates in the lab will help build a strong foundation for a more conscious future of energy production.

“We’re trying to provide the data so that somebody down the line can make sound economic decisions. We need to know the facts,” Taborek said.

Both Dunn-Rankin and Taborek previously collaborated researching another carbon-containing source of energy — coal. Focusing on the interesting and unique binding patterns of carbon, the two have done extensive research in the area, but are excited for the brief departure into this field of research.

Why have they turned away from coal now? The two say they are not looking for a replacement for coal, but rather, want to start on a clean slate, finding other opportunities for climate-friendly energy production.

Due to the fact that the combustion of coal is often an incomplete reaction, creating large by-products of carbon dioxide and noxious gas, traditional methane combustion offers the researchers a method of creating the same amount of energy with less than half of the adverse contributions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Taborek described the importance of finding a better way to extract energy from methane clathrates as being a global necessity.

“What we are contemplating is zero carbon dioxide emissions,” Taborek said. “We are taking energy one step further.”

Taborek and Dunn-Rankin have put their heads together on many combustion projects since the start of their partnership, including microgravity and hydrate combustion systems, and Taborek believes that the neighborhood friendship that the two share plays a key role in their collaboration.

The professors live right across the street in University Hills, allowing their research lives to mingle with their family lives.

“Our wives know each other and our kids went to the same school. It’s a rather unique UCI thing,” Taborek said.

Through the duo’s prior grant, focusing on energy utilization and how to burn methane, Dunn-Rankin and Taborek have learned how to make clathrates and know in which atmosphere they exist. Their new collaboration will take place in the newly funded W.M. Keck Foundation Deep-Ocean Power Science Lab and will hopefully offer some solutions to the energy crisis, but for the time being, the researchers are excited for what they may find.

The duo finds that the most interesting part is being able to think outside the box, beyond intuitive understanding.

“Whether it revolutionizes lives 20 years down the road or not, it’s only that it makes sense to understand it because it could,” Dunn-Rankin said.