Member Highlight: Fueling The Future

2018-01-02T13:52:04+00:00 October 10, 2017|
Moving a core across the deck of the Helix Q4000 to the laboratory facilities. (Credit: UT Austin)

(Click to enlarge) Moving a core across the deck of the Helix Q4000 to the laboratory facilities. (Credit: UT Austin)

A group of Jackson School scientists and students embark on a high-stakes research mission. Standing on the helideck of the Helix Q4000 with nothing but waves in sight, Peter Flemings is bleary eyed and exhausted. But, for this moment at least, the Jackson School of Geosciences professor and chief scientist of the coring mission is relieved and something akin to happy.

(From University of Texas at Austin/ By Anton Caputo) — The scene marks a seminal moment in a ground-breaking project, an $80-million, multi-year national effort that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) picked the Jackson School to lead. Flemings and his team have finally hit pay dirt, pulling a core of frozen methane hydrate from about 1,300 feet under the Gulf floor, through a mile of water, and to the deck of the deep-water coring vessel, while still keeping the methane hydrate under pressure.

Under pressure — that’s the important part. Pressure, in many ways, is what this mission is about.

The science crew’s chief goal is to return samples of this ice-like, energy-rich hydrate to the surface of the ship under the same immense pressure it is found in its natural state (about 230 times the pressure found on the surface) so they can begin to unravel its properties. This involves keeping the pressure on the cores throughout their mile-plus journey up the drill string to the deck of the coring vessel, and eventually through their 500-mile journey to Austin to the new state-of-the-art lab in the Jackson School. The ultimate goal is to figure out how to one day tap the potentially enormous energy resource.

“This is the start of a systematic experimental and theoretical effort to understand the potential to produce methane hydrates in an environmentally sustainable, safe and economic manner,” Flemings said.

It’s big science. Important science. And it involves lots of pressure.

Flemings and his team have felt immense pressure of their own during the mission, particularly in the early days of coring. They were met with failure after failure when the experimental coring tool didn’t work properly and returned a soupy, muddy mess to the deck instead of the pressurized cores they were seeking.

On this particular day in the middle of the operations the team was feeling relieved, at least temporarily, with the first successful core. But soon after this success, the pressure would return as core after core afterward came back a failure, prompting Flemings to halt operations and consider abandoning the coring altogether.

“We spent the first 10 days out here in a state of complete and utter failure,” he would later remember. “I was within 24 hours of abandoning the expedition and cutting our losses. Each day, we would update our budget and would find us $350,000 further in the hole with nothing to show for it.”

At risk was the future of the project, including a much larger coring mission planned for 2020 in partnership with the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). Ultimately, Flemings didn’t abandon the mission but halted operations and instructed the team to do what scientists and engineers do: work through the problem and find a solution — all with the clock ticking and budget mounting. The pressure was on….

Read the full story here: