Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Gas Hydrates (ICGH 2011),
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom, July 17-21, 2011.
LABORATORY FORMATION OF NON-CEMENTING, METHANE
William Waite*, Peter M. Bratton, David H. Mason
U.S. Geological Survey
384 Woods Hole Road
Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 02543
Naturally occurring hydrate-bearing sands often behave as though methane hydrate is acting as a
load-bearing member of the sediment. Mimicking this behavior in laboratory samples with
methane hydrate likely requires forming hydrate from methane dissolved in water. To hasten this
formation process, we initially form hydrate in a free-gas-limited system, then form additional
hydrate by circulating methane-supersaturated water through the sample. Though the dissolved-
phase formation process can theoretically be enhanced by increasing the pore pressure and flow
rate and lowering the sample temperature, a more fundamental concern is preventing clogs
resulting from inadvertent methane bubble formation in the circulation lines. Clog prevention
requires careful temperature control throughout the circulation loop.
Keywords: gas hydrate, hydrate formation, dissolved phase
NOMENCLATURE phase . This has been accomplished extensively
cc Cubic centimeters in the laboratory using Tetrahydrofuran [8-10].
φ U.S. Sieve size designation (phi) Because the solubility of methane in water is low,
however [11, 12], hydrate formation purely from
INTRODUCTION methane dissolved in water flowing through
Forming gas hydrate, a crystalline solid, in porous material is a slow process and has not been
sediment alters the host sediment’s mechanical as frequently attempted [13, 14].
properties. In coarse sediment, where gas hydrate To accelerate the hydrate-formation process, Priest
tends to form in existing pore space, the impact of et al.  formed methane hydrate from a limited
hydrate formation depends not only on how much supply of methane bubbles in an otherwise water-
gas hydrate forms, but also on where it forms saturated sample. This method required ~7 days,
within the pore space [1-3]. and while this is faster than the several weeks
Hydrate-rich, coarse-grained sediments are required for the purely dissolved-phase formation
thought to be of particular value as an energy of Spangenberg et al. , the Priest et al. 
resource , and these high-hydrate-content method is limited to pore-space hydrate saturations
sediments are generally thought to behave as if the below ~40%. Above this level, there is too much
hydrate is a load-bearing member of the sediment free gas initially to fully transform into hydrate.
[5, 6]. To be most relevant for constraining We propose to combine the Priest et al.  and
mechanical properties in the field, laboratory- Spangenberg et al.  methods. By initiating
formed, hydrate-rich sands should exhibit the same hydrate growth using the Priest et al.  method,
behavior. we establish an initial hydrate saturation relatively
Load-bearing hydrate systems are thought to occur quickly. To increase the hydrate saturation, we
when hydrate forms in the absence of a free gas then adopt the Spangenberg et al.  approach
Corresponding author. Phone: 1-508-457-2346, Fax: 1-508-457-2310, Email: email@example.com
and circulate methane-rich water through the respectively). Temperatures are measured via
sample. The flow of water through a hydrate- thermocouples on the outer surface of the interface
bearing sediment has also been shown by Ebinuma chamber, in the growth chamber bath, and inside
et al.  to migrate grain-cementing hydrate into the growth chamber near the sample’s top and
load-bearing configurations. bottom. Star-oddi DST micro autonomous sensors
While promising in theory, the practical measure pressure and temperature within the
application of this approach is prone to hydrate sample itself near the sample’s top and bottom.
clog formation in the inlet and outlet lines, which
Each sensor is 8.2 mm in diameter, 26 mm long.
limits the capacity for additional hydrate growth in
the sample. Here we examine the formation
process in greater detail, offering suggestions for PROCEDURE
optimizing hydrate formation rates. To begin an experiment, the 5-cm diameter, 240
cubic centimeter (cc) sample vessel is loaded with
APPARATUS damp F110 quartz sand. To limit migration of sand
We form methane gas hydrate using a flow loop out of the chamber, the sand is sieved to remove
(Fig. 1). A Polyscience circulator controls the the < 90 µm grain size fraction (3.5φ sieve), and
growth chamber bath temperature. An Isco pump 61 µm mesh-size screens with 119 µm mesh-size
is used to maintain a baseline pressure in the screen backings are placed over the inlet and outlet
system. A Quizix pump is used to maintain a ports. Assuming a target porosity of 36%, the sand
constant water flow rate through the system. We is pre-moistened to have ~18% pore-space water
use a glass-bead-filled interface chamber to saturation. The sand is spooned into the sample
saturate the circulating water with methane. With chamber and tamped to create ~ 1cm-thick layers.
the exception of the Isco and Quizix pumps, the The Star-oddi sensors are placed at measured
system is housed in a fume hood. depths near the bottom and top of the sample. The
Line pressures are measured by both pumps and thermocouples are driven into the damp-sand
by pressure sensors in the growth chamber’s inlet sample as the top endcap is seated on the growth
and outlet lines (1.6 and 2.8 mm-inner diameter, pressure vessel.
The pressure-temperature path for an experiment
is shown in Figure 2. The pressure vessel is first
placed in the temperature-controlled bath at 16°C,
evacuated, and charged to ~4.2 MPa with methane
gas. This methane pressure is calculated to provide
~20% pore-space hydrate saturation and methane-
saturate the water that will eventually fill the
remaining pore space.
Gas pressure is allowed to stabilize overnight
before the system is pressurized to 11.7 MPa by
injecting water with the Isco pump at 0.3 cc/min.
Approximately a third of the injected water is
introduced at the base of the sample before
finishing the pressurization process by injecting
Figure 1 Flow loop schematic. Water absorbs from the flow inlet at the top of the sample. This
methane at room temperature T1 (~23°C) as the two-sided injection is intended to retain free gas
water drips past ~250 µm-diameter glass beads bubbles within the sample’s interior, rather than
in a methane head space in the gas water press gas to one end of the sample [E. Rees,
interface chamber. Methane-rich water then personal communication], and takes ~ 3.5 hours to
flows into the growth chamber, where hydrate complete. Beginning with damp, rather than dry,
can accumulate in a sand pack held at sand yields well-distributed gas bubbles upon
temperature T2 (9 – 11.5°C) by the growth bath water injection .
controller. While the pressure control pump To form hydrate, the sample is cooled to ~4.2°C
holds the sample outlet pressure at 11.7 MPa, and held at 11.7 MPa by adding water as needed
the flow control pump cycles water through the by the Isco pump. The rate of water consumption
system at a constant rate between 0.1 and 1
dwindles to < 0.01 cc/day within ~120 hours.
After 120 hours, a heater tape attached to the
Water exits the bottom of the interface chamber
and passes to the top of the hydrate growth
chamber, which is nearly submerged in the
temperature-controlled bath. Circulating water
cools as it passes through the sample chamber,
then exits through the heater-tape-warmed drain
line and completing the circuit to the pumps. By
leaving the inlet line and sample chamber top
exposed and out of the hydrate-stability field, we
seek to reduce hydrate formation in the inlet line
and top endcap of the growth chamber.
To conclude an experiment, flow loop valves are
shut so the sample is in communication only with
the Isco pump. The sample bath temperature is
raised to 16°C, 1.5°C above the hydrate stability
temperature at 11.7 MPa. As hydrate dissociates,
the Isco pump records the pore water volume
change at constant pressure.
Figure 2 Pressure-Temperature conditions during RESULTS
hydrate formation. A: Initial gas injection, ~4.2 In each test, the Isco pump records the volume of
MPa, 16°C. B: Pressurization with injected water, water injected during the initial hydrate formation,
11.7 MPa, 16°C. C: Initial hydrate formation from prior to initiating circulatory flow. This represents
gas bubbles in growth chamber, 11.7 MPa, 4.2°C.
the volume change associated with methane gas in
D: Initial circulation of water to verify clog-free
the sample converting to methane hydrate. The
flow, 11.7 MPa, 12.5°C. E: Growth chamber
conditions for circulating methane-rich water volume of water injected is equal, within our
through the hydrate-bearing sand pack, 11.7 MPa, uncertainties, to the volume of gas and water taken
9-11.5°C (blue circle). Gas/Water Interface on by the Isco during hydrate dissociation. This
chamber held at 11.7 MPa, 23°C (orange circle). balance indicates the circulating methane-rich
Hydrate phase boundary data from [16, 17]. water does not appear to generate a measurable
volume of new hydrate. Instead, the circulating
growth chamber flow outlet line is turned on, and water frequently forms hydrate clogs in either the
the sample is warmed to ~12.5°C before water inlet or outlet lines around the growth chamber.
flow through the sample is initiated. At this Figure 3 illustrates how small the supersaturation
temperature, circulating water tends to dissolve ratios (the methane saturation at the interface
small blockages that formed in the inlet and outlet divided by the methane saturation at the top of the
lines during the initial hydrate synthesis. Once sample) can be in our system while still resulting
flow is established, the sample is cooled to the in flow-line clogs.
target temperature of 9 to 11.5°C.
Water circulates through the system at a constant DISCUSSION
rate of 0.05 to 1.0 cc/min (Fig. 1). Prior to entering Eliminating flow-line clogging due to hydrate
the growth chamber, water passes over ~250µm- formation from methane bubbles is a priority.
diameter glass beads in a 100 cc methane-charged Even in the absence of bubbles, however, choosing
headspace in the interface chamber. The interface a sample temperature and flow rate requires
chamber is nominally held at 11.7 MPa at a room balancing competing factors. Here we discuss
temperature of 23°C. bubble mitigation strategies, then present
When circulating water passes through the considerations for choosing flow rate and sample
interface chamber, the process of dripping through temperature conditions.
the glass beads exposes a relatively large surface
area of water to the pressurized methane in the Bubble Mitigation
interface headspace, facilitating uptake of methane Spangenberg et al.  use a relatively high
by the water [M. Rydzy, personal communication]. supersaturation ratio (Fig. 3, green square), and
though they experienced a clog initially, the clog
Upon leaving the interface chamber, however, the
water sits in a precarious equilibrium. If the
circulating water cools below 13.5°C prior to
entering the sample, methane can come out of
solution to form hydrate and clog the line (Fig. 4).
If instead the circulating water warms at all
relative to the interface chamber temperature of
23°C (T1 in Fig. 4), methane can come out of
solution as a free gas. Bubbles formed in this way
can be swept to the sample inlet, potentially
becoming trapped in the 61 or 119 µm mesh-size
screens. These screens are likely sites for rapid
hydrate formation from trapped methane bubbles.
In our system, bubble formation is likely triggered
in a 50-cm length of metal pipe connecting the
interface chamber outlet to the growth chamber
inlet (see Fig. 1). This pipe crosses the heat-
Figure 3 Relation between methane venting region of the bath temperature controller
supersaturation, flow rate, and clog formation. (lower right in Fig. 1). The exhaust from the bath
Clogging occurs for nearly all but the lowest cooler elevates the temperature along the tubing
supersaturation ratios, which are given by the length by 3°C relative to the temperature at the
methane solubility in the interface chamber interface. To minimize the time water spends in
divided by that in the growth chamber (see Fig. this length of pipe, we use a pipe with only a 1.6
3). Spangenberg et al.  (green square) mm internal diameter. Even so, water still spends
initially experienced a clog, which did not one minute or more in the metal pipe depending on
return once removed. Their high flow rate. The trade off for using a small internal-
supersaturation ratio indicates clog mitigation diameter pipe is that this provides an efficient
can be handled without limiting the system to a geometry for transferring heat from the warm
low supersaturation ratio. exhaust air to the circulating water. Heat shielding
was removed by heating and did not reappear once and additional insulation will be required to avoid
the sample had again cooled to the target
temperature. The saturation ratio itself is therefore
not likely to be the variable controlling the onset
of clogging in our system. A more reasonable
explanation is bubble formation, with subsequent
rapid hydrate formation.
Figure 4 illustrates the path circulating water takes
in terms of methane solubility. The peaked curved
(blue) denotes the equilibrium number of moles of
methane per kilogram of solution that water can
hold in the dissolved phase (data from Duan et al.
). The solubility peak occurs at 14.5°C, the
phase boundary for methane hydrate at 11.7 MPa.
At temperatures cooler that 14.5°C, hydrate is
stable and excess methane in the circulating water
can come out of solution to form additional
hydrate. For temperatures warmer than 14.5°C,
Figure 4 Flow loop conditions (black line)
excess methane can come out of solution to form
relative to the methane solubility in water at
free gas bubbles. 11.7 MPa (blue curve). The solubility
The closer the interface chamber is in temperature difference between the interface (red circle)
(T1 in Fig. 4) to the hydrate stability temperature, and growth chamber (green circle) is the
the more methane can be absorbed by the water. methane available for hydrate formation.
bubble formation in this line.
Flow Rate and Sample Temperature
Flow rate and sample temperature control how
much methane is available for hydrate formation,
and how much time the circulating water is in
contact with the sample and can accomplish the
transfer of methane from the dissolved phase to
Figure 5 displays a family of curves showing how
many cubic cm of hydrate could form per day in a
system held at 11.7 MPa, with an interface
chamber temperature of 23°C. The curves assume
1% efficiency in converting dissolved-phase
methane to hydrate. The formation rates observed
by Spangenberg et al.  suggest efficiencies
may be 1-10%. Figure 5 Expected hydrate formation volumes
Given the solubility curve shape (Fig. 4), the per day as a function of sample temperature
methane content in the circulating water can be and flow rate. The supersaturation ratio ranges
increased by cooling the interface to nearly the from 1.02 at 12°C to 1.48 at 6°C, but hydrate
hydrate stability temperature. Correspondingly, formation is assumed to utilize only 1% of the
lowering the sample temperature reduces the available methane circulating through the
methane concentration that water can hold in the sample. This efficiency estimate is crudely
presence of hydrate. Increasing this based on early results from Spangenberg et al.
. The interface chamber is assumed to be at
supersaturation difference between the interface
23°C, 11.7 MPa.
and growth chambers (Fig. 4) is what increases the
amount of methane available per cc of circulating of hydrate-saturated marine sands. Because of the
water. low solubility of methane in water, dissolved-
Supersaturation can also be enhanced by elevating phase formation techniques are likely to be slow.
the pore pressure. Solubility is only weakly Initiating hydrate growth using less time-
dependent on pressure in the presence of hydrate, consuming formation techniques, such as the gas-
but the solubility curve for temperatures above the limited technique of Priest et al.  can be an
hydrate equilibrium temperature shifts upward attractive approach for reducing the volume of
above the hydrate stability temperature as pressure hydrate formation that must be accomplished from
increases , increasing the equilibrium methane dissolved phase methane.
content in water for a given interface chamber To enhance the productivity of dissolved-phase
temperature. hydrate formation, methane should be combined
As Figure 5 indicates, elevating the flow rate with water at the highest attainable pressure, near
elevates the hydrate production by providing the hydrate stability temperature. Hydrate growth
should then be accomplished close to 0°C to
additional water to the sample. It is not clear,
maximize the methane available for hydrate
however, at which flow rate this added
formation. Flow rates of ~1 cc/min have been
productivity is offset by the diminished time the successful, but lower rates may be necessary at
circulating water spends in contact with hydrate in higher hydrate saturations [Spangenberg, personal
the growth chamber. Elevated flow rates may also communication, 2010]. For a given system
promote channeled flow, which would geometry, less efficient pressure, temperature and
significantly limit the spatial and temporal flow rate parameters me be required in order to
exposure of the circulating water to hydrate in the avoid bubble formation and subsequent clogging.
growth chamber. The flow line leading from the point of highest
methane saturation (the interface chamber in this
CONCLUSION work) into the growth chamber is particularly
Hydrate formation from methane dissolved in vulnerable to bubble formation and must not be
water is thought to result in the load-bearing pore- allowed to warm above the temperature at which
space hydrate distribution most relevant to studies methane was saturated into the water. Bubbles
formed in this line can collect at the growth porous media. Marine Geology, 2000. 164: p.
chamber entrance and rapidly form the small 69-77.
amount of hydrate required to block the flow line. 8. Lee, J.Y., T.S. Yun, J.C. Santamarina, and C.
Ruppel, Observations related to
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U.S. Geological Survey contributions were laboratory studies of hydrate-bearing
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Geology Program, as well as through the doi:10.1029/2006GC001531, 10 p.
Interagency Agreement DE-FE0002911 between
9. Pearson, C., J. Murphy, and H. R., Acoustic
the USGS Gas Hydrates Project and the U.S.
and resistivity measurements on rock samples
Department of Energy's Methane Hydrates R&D
Program. Any use of trade names is for descriptive containing Tetrahydrofuran hydrates:
purposes only and does not imply endorsement by laborotory analogues to natural gas hydrate
the U.S. Government. deposits. Journal of Geophysical Research,
1986. 91(B14): p. 14132-14138.
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