By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Energy Department on Wednesday announced a breakthrough in research into tapping a possibly vast fuel resource that could eventually bolster already massive natural gas reserves.
By injecting a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen into a methane hydrate formation on Alaska's North Slope, the department was able to produce a steady flow of natural gas in the first field test of this method. The test was done from mid-February to about mid-April this year
Methane hydrates are ice crystal-like structures that contain natural gas. The hydrates are located under the Arctic permafrost and in ocean sediments along the continental shelf.
Still, the department said it will likely be years before production of methane hydrates becomes economically viable.
"While this is just the beginning, this research could potentially yield significant new supplies of natural gas," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.
The department, which partnered with ConocoPhillips and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp for the test, said it will offer $6.5 million this year for further research on tapping methane hydrates, and will request an additional $5 million for research next year.
Gerald Holder, dean of the engineering program at University of Pittsburgh and who has worked with the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory on the hydrate issue, said before this announcement he had been skeptical about what researchers would be able to accomplish.
He said the main problem until now was finding a way to extract natural gas from solid hydrates without adding a whole lot of steps that made the process too expensive, so the success of this new test is significant.
"It makes the possibility of recovering methane from hydrates much more likely," Holder said. "It's a long way off, but this could have huge impact on availability of natural gas."
The United States is currently enjoying a shale gas boom, after advances in technology allowed drillers to tap shale formations that just a few years ago were not feasible for production.
(Editing by Gary Hill and Bob Burgdorfer)