Last fall, I told you about methane hydrates—solid, ice-like lumps that form when molecules of methane are encased in a tasty candy shell of water molecules, kept at low temperatures and under high pressure.
These deposits are common in the Gulf of Mexico, and they're now playing a role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The formation of methane hydrate crystals was responsible for dooming efforts to cap the broken, bleeding well with a containment dome.
And there's some speculation that methane hydrates might have caused the blast that touched off the whole disaster. Remember, the hydrates are essentially compressed gas. And while they can sit, stable and safe, at the bottom of the ocean, changes in temperature or pressure can quickly launch an explosive breakdown.
While hydrates have been considered as a source of energy, themselves, they're a big concern for oil drilling in deep waters where the hydrates can form fast enough that you can watch them plug up a test tube in less than 10 minutes. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in a region known for methane hydrate formation—less than 20 miles from a similar site where researchers are studying methane hydrates. An expert with access to BP's internal documents told Science that there are signs the Deepwater Horizon was having problem with hydrates before the deadly explosion happened.
About a month before the blowout, a "kick" of gas pressure hit the well hard enough that the platform was shut down. "Something under high pressure was being encountered," says Bea--apparently both hydrates and gas on different occasions.
Longer analysis explaining the evidence in-depth at The Guardian
Image taken by Ian MacDonald, via Samantha Joye.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.