As engineers working for oil giant BP grapple with an icy slush of frozen water and methane gas blocking its controversial "cap" for an out-of-control well gushing into the Gulf of Mexico -- researchers gathered in New Zealand are taking a longer-term view of that slush -- known as methane hydrates.
The scientists are holding a three-day conference in Wellington on the gas hydrates at the 7th International Workshop on Methane Hydrate Research and Development, at Te Papa .
Researchers believe the energy in global gas hydrate accumulations may exceed total known petroleum reserves. New Zealand has world class gas hydrate deposits off the east coast, from East Cape to Marlborough.
More work is needed to work out how to safely and efficiently extract the methane, and delegates at the conference will hear reports on the latest developments in research.
The hydrates are a solid ice-like form of water that contains methane gas molecules "caged" in tiny cavities. They are usually stable at the sea floor at water deeper than about 500m, usually embedded in the first 500m of sediment.
Stuart Henrys of GNS Science said the conference was well timed for New Zealand, with local research set to ramp up in the next two years and a seabed survey planned for early 2011 specifically to explore hydrates off the Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay coasts.
There are huge deposits 22 kilometres off the south Wairarapa coast, about 80km from the Beehive in Wellington, thought to contain half a trillion cubic feet of gas, about 1000 metres deep.
The frozen gas is highly concentrated, expanding by 164 times its volume when it melts into water and gas -- and this rapid expansion is thought to have been what initially wrecked BP's drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, by causing a blowout of the well.
Dr Henrys said that to have many leading scientists focusing on the NZ gas hydrate opportunities and challenges could have many positive spinoffs, including international cooperation to bring research resources to New Zealand.
There not yet any offshore commercial production of gas hydrates yet, although several nations including Japan, South Korea, India, China, and the United States have exploration programmes that expect to start production in the near future. All these countries have representatives attending Wellington conference.