Jackson School of Geosciences leads research mission

Anna Lassmann

Jackson School of Geosciences researchers are one step closer to understanding the properties of frozen methane hydrate, which is a potential future energy resource, with the help of recently obtained samples.

Frozen methane hydrate consists of water molecules that trap methane and can hold 100 times more energy than methane found at Earth’s surface. In May, the research team set out on a Q4000, an oil-field construction and intervention vessel, in the Gulf of Mexico and returned with 21 pressurized core samples of methane hydrate.

“We invested a lot of time and energy into putting this expedition together … and after that first hole we drilled, we were doing terrible,” said Joshua O’Connell, lab manager of the UT Pressure Core Center. “We managed to turn it around and now we have a lab full of core that we can get some science out of.”

The project is part of an $80 million, multi-year national effort that the U.S. Department of Energy selected the Jackson School to lead. The research team consists of 24 members and includes professors and students from UT, Ohio State University and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with scientists from the Department of Energy, the U.S. Geological Survey and Geotek.

“UT is the primary lead on this project, but to accomplish an expedition of this scale we needed a wider group of scientists,” said Steve Phillips, a post-doctoral fellow for UT’s Institute of Geophysics.

Researchers from the Jackson School and UT’s petroleum engineering and geosystems engineering programs are continuing their research to understand hydrate reservoir properties.

“Imagine it like a sandwich,” said Peter Polito, the methane hydrate laboratory director for the Jackson School. “Above and below we have the bread and we want to get the peanut butter and jelly out of it. The hydrate reservoir is sandwiched in between the two things we don’t care about. We just want to study that good stuff at the center.”

In 2020, the research team will go back out into the Gulf of Mexico for 60 days and drill an additional eight or nine holes with an international crew, according to Polito.

The main goal of the research mission is to understand the properties of pressurized methane hydrate and figure out how to use it as a potential energy source.

“Eventually we might want more (natural gas) as electric cars come out and as we get away from gasoline,” Polito said. “Methane hydrate might be something to help us achieve that.”