OFF THE COAST OF THE Carolinas, the ocean-research ship Joides Resolution has drilled the first of four deep holes to sample a fuel reserve sufficient to keep the lights burning for centuries after the earth is squeezed dry of oil and other fuels. Up to 10 trillion tons of carbon fuel--twice as much as all the earth's oil, gas, and coal reserves combined--may lurk beneath the seabed.
You've probably never heard of this new "gray gold," otherwise known as gas-hydrate crystals. No wonder, since even researchers know very little about them. That's because the methane-and-water crystals take form only under intense pressure, and they quickly decompose when brought to the surface.
Charles K. Paull, a professor of geology at the University of North Carolina, is the U.S. leader on the expedition. It's part of the Ocean Drilling Program begun in 1985 and funded by the U.S. and 19 other countries. The current seven-week voyage, which will end on Dec. 19, is aimed at developing better seismic tools to prospect for hydrates in future decades. Fifty researchers on board the ship will also conduct thorough scientific analyses of the crystals.