Machine Design

Gold Rush beneath the waves

Underwater reserves of methane gas could become the next mother lode if scientists learn how to convert icelike deposits, called methane hydrates, into fuel.

"Gold Rush" beneath the waves

Researchers Pete Wenner and Jason Rueter deploy MS equipment in the Gulf of Mexico.

Researcher Tim Short and his colleagues at the University of South Florida's Center for Ocean Technology are working on the first part of the test, using specialized mass-spectrometry (MS) equipment to measure compounds such as methane hydrates at concentrations of less than one part per billion in deep marine environments. They expect autonomous underwater vehicles will soon carry the equipment more than half a mile below the surface.

Initially, divers took the instruments down 60 ft to study gas composition of hydrothermal seeps. Since then, Short and his team have collected MS depth profiles to 1,140 ft in the Gulf of Mexico. And recent tests indicate MS instruments will eventually plumb full ocean depths.

"Taking MS analysis to greater depths has some practical scientific and environmental purposes," says Short. Besides detecting methane, the technology could let scientists study deepwater hydrothermal vents. MS can also monitor oxygen and carbon dioxide, as well as harmful compounds such as benzene, chloroform, and toluene.

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