Scientists from New Zealand and Germany will spend the next six weeks on the German research ship, Sonne, investigating gas hydrate deposits off the east coast of the North Island.
Gas hydrates, also known as methane hydrates, exist under the seafloor as a solid form of natural gas bound up in an ice-like structure. Research into New Zealand's gas hydrates is largely motivated by the possibility that they might constitute a future source of natural gas.
The offshore region between Wairarapa and East Cape has one of the world's largest occurrences of gas hydrate deposits, covering an area of about 50,000 square kilometres. Scientifically the area is known as the Hikurangi Margin.
The scientists from German marine science institute, IFM-Geomar at the University of Kiel, GNS Science, and several other institutions will focus on several areas identified during previous marine surveys as being particularly rich in gas hydrate deposits.
They will acquire high-resolution three-dimensional seismic data as well as electromagnetic and geochemical information to find out more about the hydrate deposits. The project consists of two back-to-back voyages of about three weeks each.
GNS Science Project Leader, Ingo Pecher, said the information obtained during the voyages would greatly improve the understanding of New Zealand's most significant gas hydrate region.
"It will enable us to better gauge the potential of what might become the largest known natural gas resource in New Zealand," Dr Pecher said.
Specifically the survey would better delineate the location and size of the hydrate deposits, and help scientists to determine if it was feasible to extract them from under the sea floor.
Gas hydrate deposits have been drilled in several countries in recent years. Gas production from hydrates has been tested successfully onshore in Canada and the first offshore production tests are planned in Japan in 2012.
"New Zealand has a similar geological setting to Japan and the Hikurangi Margin is attracting a lot of international interest because of the size and quality of our gas hydrate deposits," Dr Pecher said.
"Our gas hydrate deposits are unusual because they occur in geological formations that favour 'sweet spots', or areas of high gas hydrate concentration."
Another favourable factor was that the deposits were located relatively near to population centres in Wellington and Hawke's Bay and this would make it easier to install pipelines and other infrastructure.
The deposits closest to shore are generally located between 20km and 80km from the coast and in water depths greater than 500m.
Scientists have estimated the volume of gas stored in the Hikurangi Margin gas hydrate deposits is equivalent to several times the size of the Maui Gas Field when it was discovered. The first of the two voyages sets off from Wellington this Friday.
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