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Dry water may have applications in the storage and transport of natural gases

Dry water may sound like a contradiction in terms, but this substance with the look and feel of icing sugar has the potential to change the energy market.

It’s made by coating water molecules with a thin layer of modified silica, the main component of beach sand. The result is a dry powder that is 95 per cent water. Because the silica prevents the water droplets from recombining into a liquid, dry water is able to absorb gases, which combine with the water to make gas hydrates. Gases could then be safely stored before being shipped away in powder form – an economical alternative to the use of pipelines, liquefaction, or compression.

First invented by German scientists in the 1960s for use in cosmetics, dry water soon fell by the wayside until its rediscovery by Hull University scientists in 2006. A materials chemistry research group at the University of Liverpool, headed up by Andrew Cooper, then began to study dry water, and realized its potential extends far beyond face cream.

Ben Carter, the lead researcher in Cooper’s group, discussed the team’s work with The Daily by email. He’s most interested in dry water’s primary application, storing natural gas.

“A great many natural gas reserves (up to forty per cent by some estimates) are classified as ‘stranded,’ which is to say that they are too remote to be accessed economically using standard gas transport technologies,” he wrote. “Dry water gas hydrate could act as an alternative to these.”

While there are other ways to form natural gas hydrates, these depend on stirring or spraying to accelerate the process. Dry water needs no outside agent – it requires less energy and is more cost-effective than other options.

The same process that allows dry water to store methane can also be used to capture carbon dioxide, an angle which Carter said “has been seized upon more than we would like by the press.” At this stage of research, CO2 storage has only occurred under laboratory conditions. Real-world scenarios such as the absorption of post-combustion emissions, which could have drastic environmental implications, would probably just cause the powder to evaporate.

Dry water may not be the global warming fix-all the media are saying it is, but Carter still sees it as an environmental boon, calling it a “pollution preventer” in its application as a natural gas transporter. While natural gas does produce less CO2 than petroleum-based fuels, methane – the primary component of natural gas – accounts for more than 14 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2004 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Quebec, the provincial government has faced public backlash over plans to extract natural gas through “fracking,” a process which Natural Resources Canada has warned could increase CO2 emissions and diminish fresh water reserves.

Carter remains optimistic about dry water’s potential uses, however, especially in the development of cleaner energy sources. “Green fuel gases such as hydrogen in particular will require effective storage before they can be fully developed,” he wrote. “Alternative energy sources and their technologies are still long-term goals, and I think that in the meantime we need to address our effect on the planet in some fashion.”