W.M. Keck Foundation grants UCI $1 million for deep-ocean power science lab

Researchers will explore use of marine conditions to produce clean energy

The W.M. Keck Foundation has granted $1 million to UC Irvine to build a campus laboratory in which researchers can explore the potential of using the deep ocean’s low-temperature and high-pressure conditions to generate carbon-free power from methane hydrates.

Three-dimensional, ice-like structures with natural gas locked inside, methane hydrates are found under the Arctic permafrost and in ocean sediments along nearly every continental shelf in the world. They’re difficult to recover, though, because they require low temperatures and high pressure to remain solid. The new laboratory will investigate novel strategies for utilizing the natural gas contained in methane hydrates through high-pressure combustion and for immediately capturing and mitigating any carbon dioxide emissions.

The facility, to be called the W.M. Keck Foundation Deep-Ocean Power Science Laboratory, will be a joint project of UC Irvine’s The Henry Samueli School of Engineering and School of Physical Sciences. It will be built in an existing two-story space in the campus’s Engineering Gateway building.

The lab will include two chambers: a combustion reactor vessel and a multiphase emission evolution vessel. These can operate independently or in coupled mode, where combustion products are injected directly into conditions simulating the deep ocean. A variety of instrumentation and optical diagnostics will allow high-speed, high-resolution tracking of the action in both chambers.

The first studies will focus on the combustion of methane hydrates and the formation rates of carbon dioxide hydrates so that researchers can better understand how these compounds react when energy is released. However, the lab will permit exploration of a wide range of energy-relevant concepts, including fuel cells, reforming methane to hydrogen, and even purification – or desalination – of water.

“This will be the only facility in the world capable of examining both high-pressure combustion and carbon sequestration,” said Derek Dunn-Rankin, professor and chair of mechanical & aerospace engineering at UC Irvine and lead investigator on the project. “By conducting these studies in a controlled laboratory setting, we aren’t jeopardizing the ocean. And by learning how to handle methane hydrates, we can determine a scientific basis for making rational decisions about how to safely and wisely use them. This laboratory opens the door to an exciting future of deep-ocean power science.”

Deep-sea methane hydrates are the world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but the process and technology for safe and effective mining and use have not yet been established. Exploratory extraction efforts are under way in several countries.

“We’re very excited about this grant,” said Peter Taborek, professor and chair of physics & astronomy and co-principal investigator. “Carbon sequestration is an important problem that needs to be solved, and the natural conditions of the ocean – low temperatures and high pressure – work to our advantage. We have the potential to make a large, positive ecological impact. There are very few options for making energy in a way that doesn’t mess up the environment, and this is an important one.

Lab construction is expected to take a year, although researchers will begin conducting experiments within six months. The grant will be allocated over three years, and Dunn-Rankin anticipates seeking additional funding to extend the research.

Besides Dunn-Rankin and Taborek, other UC Irvine researchers involved are Kenneth Janda, chemistry professor and physical sciences dean; Ara Apkarian, chemistry professor; and William Sirignano, mechanical & aerospace engineering professor.