Science magazine features Mines hydrates research

GOLDEN, Colo., Oct. 12, 2009 – Science magazine has published a paper by Colorado School of Mines doctoral graduate student Matthew Walsh, and faculty and co-directors of the Center for Hydrate Research (CHR), Carolyn Koh, E. Dendy Sloan, Amadeu Sum, and David Wu — “Microsecond Simulations of Spontaneous Methane Hydrate Nucleation and Growth.”

The article was recently featured on "Science Express," the magazine’s web site that highlights selected articles that will appear in upcoming print issues.

Wu explains gas hydrates as vast untapped energy reserves found in the ocean and the permafrost that are also a potential storage medium for hydrogen fuel or sequestering carbon dioxide. Hydrates currently pose the greatest challenge in the delivery of oil and gas in pipelines, which can be plugged by the formation of hydrates, he said. The Mines research reported in Science helps explain how hydrates form, and could eventually lead to ways to control their growth.

"Methane hydrates form at high pressures and low temperatures, and have an unusual crystalline structure in which water molecules form cages around individual methane molecules, " Wu said. "How such complex structures form is notoriously difficult to study since the process of nucleation is a rare random event that happens in a few nanoseconds and at a random location over a few nanometers."

Using the substantial computing power of the supercomputer Ra at Mines, researchers captured the nucleation of hydrate from methane and water by direct simulation — an achievement that has eluded researchers for more than two decades. The simulations performed corresponded to a few microseconds of experimental time, but this is more than two orders of magnitude longer than in prior studies.

This study not only revealed an intricate microscopic mechanism for hydrate formation, but also demonstrates how computational tools can transform our understanding of gas hydrate nucleation and growth — impacting how gas hydrates are managed in flow assurance, are utilized in energy storage, and are recovered as future energy resources.

"Hydrates are looming large in the energy and environment world and this groundbreaking research solves a nucleation puzzle," said John Poate, Mines vice president for Research and Technology Transfer.

The CHR at Mines has been studying gas hydrates for more than 30 years with the main goal of understanding and applying these structures in the areas of flow assurance, energy storage, and energy recovery.

This study was supported by the National Science Foundation-Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and CBET Division, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Mines Hydrate Consortium, which is presently sponsored by BP, Champion Technologies, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Multi-Chem Group, Nalco, Petrobras, Schlumberger, Shell, SPT Group, StatoilHydro, and Total. The simulations were carried out on facilities at the Golden Energy Computing Organization at Colorado School of Mines using resources acquired with financial assistance from the NSF and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


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