energy source

The University announced Wednesday that the Jackson School of Geosciences received a $58 million grant to study methane hydrate, a frozen compound that could be used as an energy source.

The U.S. Department of Energy provided $41.2 million of the grant, with the remaining funds coming from research partners. UT is working with Ohio State University, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the U.S. Geological Survey over the next four years on the project.

Geological sciences professor Peter Flemings said while methane hydrate is a distant and currently expensive potential solution, the goal of the research is to drill for and study naturally forming methane hydrate to learn about its behavior, how it is formed and how to produce it.

“Dr. Flemings’ work has incredible potential for the energy sphere and reinforces the Jackson School and UT’s internationally recognized role in groundbreaking research,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said. 

Flemings said there is compacted methane and water in oceans that creates the methane hydrate.  

“If you combine methane and water, and you raise the pressure a lot, or you lower the temperature a lot, it turns into this solid structure that looks very much like ice,” Flemings said. “And what actually happens is that the water molecules form a structure that encloses methane molecules.”

According to Fleming, at atmospheric temperature, the methane is released and produces energy. He said there is estimated to be enough methane hydrate to power our current lifestyles for 200 years just in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The reason it’s important as an energy supply is because there’s a potentially large volume of it,” Flemings said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be economically easy to extract it or that we are going to use it in the near term.”

Kris Darnell, a geological sciences graduate student who researches lab-created methane hydrate with Flemings, said recreating the compound is difficult and expensive.

“So if we can go out to the field and bring it back to our laboratories, then it’s the best way to validate what we already think we know about the material,” Darnell said.  

Dylan Meyer, another one of Flemings’ graduate students, said this money will broaden the University’s current research in the area.

“The field of hydrates is so new right now that there’s almost unlimited possibilities of where the research can go,” Meyer said. “So getting this sort of funding will give us the opportunity to explore all sorts of avenues.”

While the field of research is relatively new, Flemings said that methane hydrate itself and the type of energy being produced is not.

“At the end of the day, the energy source is natural gas, but it’s a new source for natural gas in the sense that we have not used it to heat our houses with, or we haven’t produced it yet,” Flemings said.

Parking Services Supervisor John Garrett stands in front of solar panels on the Manor Garage roof Tuesday afternoon. The panels were installed in 2011 as part of a study by the Webber Energy Group, a UT mechanical engineering team researching the output of three different types of panels under the same conditions.

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

While Austin Energy announced that it gave out more solar energy rebates to residents in 2012 than any other year, UT officials said they plan to maintain the campus’ solar panels but don’t plan to build any more.

Since 2004, Austin Energy provides solar photovoltaic rebates to residents who install panels and meet other requirements. Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said the company is looking to help customers ease into this alternative energy source.

“We want to help spur the solar energy desire in the world but to also bring the costs down,” Cordova said. “Our rebate is the lowest ever, $2 per kilowatt hour, but the desire for solar energy in Austin is at its highest ever, which has helped us achieve the high number of rebates.”

Saying he hopes to provide a clean energy future for students, Jim Walker, the University’s director of sustainability, oversaw the installation of solar paneling on the main campus and at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin.

The J.J. Pickle Research Campus has been heralded as having the largest solar power system in Austin, consisting of two solar arrays. One is on top of a newly built carport structure and the other covers more than an acre as a larger ground-mounted system south of the Microelectronics Research Center building. By harnessing the sun’s energy, UT obtains more than 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to UT Facilities Services. 

However, Walker said representatives of the University have no plans to install any more solar paneling. He said the current energy program, started in 1930, is both efficient and cost effective. Outside of solar energy, Walker said one type of fuel has powered all 400 acres of the University over the last 50 years. 

“Our [main] energy source is a monofuel burning, natural gas producing plant that produces energy that is cheaper and much more efficient than solar energy,” Walker said. “Because solar energy is still quite expensive, making the campus go solar is a harder argument to make.”

Published on January 16, 2013 as "UT elects to not expand solar energy usage".