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Virtual laboratory could hold key to preventing underwater pipeline leaks

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An assistant professor at the University of North Texas has created a virtual organic chemistry laboratory inside a supercomputer, which could hold the key to preventing undersea oil pipeline leaks.

Through the use of computational chemistry, Oliviero Andreussi will begin to trawl through scientific databases listing thousands of organic molecules to determine the various effects of different compounds on the production or suppression of natural gas hydrates.

"Natural gas hydrates are crystalline structures made of gas molecules trapped in a cage of water molecules," Andreussi said. "The increase and decrease of the production of these natural gas hydrates could be used to do everything from preventing undersea oil pipeline breaks to storing greenhouse gases."

These natural gas hydrates form in deep-sea sediments under cold conditions and under pressure, which is the same environment found in underwater oil pipelines. In these pipelines, natural gas hydrates will slowly build up over time, creating back pressure that can cause the pipe to crack or burst.

"A large and continuing release of oil into a body of water can be an environmental and economic disaster," Andreussi continued. "If we can add an organic compound that will slow or stop the production of gas hydrates we can keep the pipelines intact and help protect the oceans."

The theory could be applied to other environmental applications; by increasing natural gas hydrates production, these crystalline structures could be used to store various gases.

"Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse cases could be removed from the atmosphere and captured in gas hydrates," he added. "Once in a solid phase, the gasses could be stored or buried. The sooner we find the molecules we need, the sooner scientists can develop other new and exciting applications."