Researchers are using microfluidics--the precise control and manipulation of fluids by constraining them to sub-millimeter geometries--along with small changes in temperature to explore the indeterminate process by which methane gas becomes a solid hydrate when exposed to water. The work has implications for engineering and climate science. An enormous amount of methane is trapped in permafrost and beneath the ocean’s Arctic bed, much of it in an ice-locked methane hydrate state, in which methane is enclosed in cages of water molecules. Understanding how methane--which absorbs 30 times as much solar radiation as carbon dioxide--interacts with water to become a crystalline gas hydrate and, conversely, how it dissociates back to its gaseous state, is critical to an understanding of how it could catalyze, or perhaps slow, climate change. It could also lead to new technologies for gas separations and efficient and safe storage of natural gas, as the amount of energy in natural gas hydrate deposits is at least twice that of all other fossil fuels combined.
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