The Great Problem and Solution that is Methane

Methane bubbles in an Alaskan Lake
courtesy of National Geographic

One thing that has been coming very clear to me recently is that there is no shortage of clean fuel in the world. The only question we have is how to capture it to use it, rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere.

I’m talking about Methane here, which is the key component of Natural Gas. Methane is a completely renewable resource. It is also a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Oil companies used to burn it off as an unwanted by-product of oil drilling. Cattle and other livestock continuously burp it out. The arctic sea has been belching millions of gallons of methane into the atmosphere. That methane has been building up for millennia, produced by microbes eating organic matter left behind from the last time the earth was warmer. As global warming melts the ice in both the arctic and the antarctic, the amount of this methane released will only increase.

I remember reading about methane digesters  back in the 70’s, as a potential solution to deforestation in third world countries. Farmers could take the dung from their lifestock, and any other organic waste, put it into the digester, and get out both a gas they could burn for cooking and a liquid fertilizer they could put on their fields. Thus they wouldn’t need to constantly whack down more trees for firewood.

You can still make a methane digester. And many of us currently burn methane in our furnaces, meaning a whole lot less gets burnt up at the oil fields. But there is still a massive disconnect between the amount of methane being released into the atmosphere for partially man-made reasons (global warming = polar emissions; increased meat consumption = increased herd emissions), the specifically man-made releases associated with energy recovery (methane released from fracking) and our ongoing quest for other, new energy resources.

It is easy to see this as the result of 7+billion people each pursuing their own agenda. Fortunately enough people are paying attention to enough parts of this situation that progress is being made at least in some parts of it.

The US Government is paying close attention to this issue/prospect. Last summer they gave $5,000,000 in grants to projects researching the recovery of the gases from the arctic. It is estimated that the methane reserves under the arctic alone are more than twice the oil and gas reserves in the rest of the world. I don’t know if that is true, but even if it is close to true if they were released into the atmosphere that would have an astounding impact on global warming. I’m thinking it would be better to capture them and use them, especially if it meant we had to use less of the dirtier forms of fuel like oil and coal.

Tomorrow I’ll do a post about microbes turning coal into methane and natural gas. There is so much material here, I could make it the topic of this blog for a week. But I’ll try to keep it to two days. Maybe more later…

I’m curious, though. If you could make the choice between sending scientists and industrialists to capture the methane coming out of the arctic and antarctic, and risking the environmental degradation that would ensue, or keeping the arctic and antarctic pristine of industry, but continuously amplifying global warming, which would you choose?

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One response to “The Great Problem and Solution that is Methane

  1. Pingback: Microbes that eat Coal | Great Ideas, Practical Steps·

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