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The Molecular Seeds of Fossil Fuel

NSF Award:

Molecular Modeling of Nucleation and Growth of Clathrate Hydrates  (University of Utah)

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The most abundant source of fossil fuel is gas clathrate hydrates--water-based crystals that host gas molecules. These solids--which resemble ice--occur in the permafrost and seafloor, however, little is known about the molecular mechanisms that drive their formation.

Now, a research team led by Valeria Molinero of the University of Utah has provided direct insight into the processes that form clathrates and the molecular structure of the seeds from which they grow. By learning more about the molecular mechanisms that drive clathrate growth, researchers have eliminated a key impediment in controlling clathrate crystallization.

Clathrate hydrates offer great promise as an abundant energy source, for storage and transportation of natural gas and hydrogen, and for isolating carbon dioxide. However, when they form in oil and gas pipelines, they can cause enormous economic losses and safety concerns. This research will advance the development of strategies to control the conditions and speed by which clathrates form.

The team--which included graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Utah and a visiting professor and undergraduate student from Westminster College in Salt Lake City--characterized the structure, size and mechanisms that form clathrate seeds. They are sharing their work with high-school students in Utah through "The Leo on Wheels" program, which reaches 14,000 students annually. 


  • microscopic pathway that forms crystalline clathrate
The microscopic pathway that forms crystalline clathrate.
Liam C. Jacobson and Valeria Molinero, University of Utah

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