Columbia University

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.

Columbia University psychologist Carl Hart said decriminalizing drugs in the United States would do more good than continuing to fund costly drug prevention efforts at a speech Thursday sponsored in part by three UT departments.

Hart discussed his views on American drug policy and how race dynamics affect the legal side of the drug war. The University departments that sponsored the event are the department of psychology, the Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Hart said that while he was serving with the Air Force overseas in England in 1985, he began learning more about the issue of race relations in America and the crack cocaine abuse epidemic associated with it. Hart said this caused him to dedicate his career to science because he wanted to figure out what was occurring in the brains of drug addicts and find a neurobiological solution to their addiction.

“[After I left the U.S.,] I started to become educated, and I started to see all the inconsistencies,” Hart said.

Hart said he believes the issue is drug policy rather than drug use.

The 2013 National Drug Control budget requested $25.6 billion for drug prevention efforts, according to a April 2012 White House report on the National Drug Control Strategy. 

Hart said he believes the increase in abuse-prevention funding has not facilitated significant improvement in drug abuse rates. In addition, Hart said he believes abuse-prevention funding is a method of deferring responsibility.

“It’s a lot easier to face and blame crack cocaine than job issues, education problems, structural barriers like racism [and] lack of opportunities in general,” Hart said.

Hart said this shift of blame allows the media and government to stigmatize drug use and lead people to believe that one hit can lead to addiction.

“[People shouldn’t] buy into government propaganda,” said Stephanie Hamborsky, a Plan II and biology sophomore. “People should be more critical of information given to them.”

Hart, an advocate for drug decriminalization, said he believes abuse-prevention funding could be deferred to education on the effects of drug use.

Cheyanne Weldon, executive director of the Texas chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said she agrees with the opinions of Hart.

“We can’t legislate morality,” Weldon said. “We can’t control what people do behind closed doors…There has to be a different way of looking at it.”