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FAIRBANKS - Billions of natural gas bubbles rise from rotting vegetation and bump up under the ice in Alaska's lakes each winter, only to escape the next spring when the frozen surface thaws.
Such gas has apparently also percolated into the Earth's oceans for millions of years, but in areas of severe cold or pressure, the gas has rarely escaped and instead has formed unstable crystals.
Companies and university researchers, including some from Alaska, in recent years have pondered ways to capture the flammable gas in the crystals and put it to use. Now the federal government may soon give their efforts a multimillion-dollar boost.
Congress approved legislation last week that authorizes spending up to $45 million for research into the crystals, known as ``methane hydrates.'' U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, helped steer the legislation through the Senate.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Michael Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has already passed the House and now goes to President Clinton for a signature.
Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have looked at various aspects of methane hydrates, but hope more can be learned.
``We're preparing a proposal right now to see if we can get a piece of that $45 million,'' said Robert Trent, director of UAF's School of Mineral Engineering.
The money, though authorized, has yet to be appropriated. So the full amount, or nothing at all, could appear in the federal appropriation bills that will be written this summer to pay for the federal fiscal year starting Oct. 1. As envisioned by the bill's authors, the $45 million would be allocated during next five years.
UAF's investigations have attracted the attention of a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company, Syntroleum, which recently patented a theoretical method for collecting the methane gas. Syntroleum is working with UAF researchers to improve aspects of that collection process, though company representatives and Trent both said the details are proprietary.
``When we learned of their research and experience in this area, we felt they'd be a logical partner,'' said Ken Roberts, Syntroleum's manager of business development.
Vladimir Romanovsky, associate professor of geophysics at UAF, said most research there has sought to identify how methane hydrates affect the balance of ``greenhouse'' gases in the earth's atmosphere.
Use of methane hydrates as an energy source hasn't been the focus of his work, ``but of course it's all related,'' said Romanovsky.