All eyes are on Japan as they recently became the first country to successfully extract natural gas from methane hydrate deposits, commonly referred to as “flammable ice,” located nearly 900 feet below the seabed. For a country that imports almost all of its energy, this discovery could be an incredible asset.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daichii disaster, Japan is in the process of moving away from nuclear power, and this new source of natural gas could be just the solution. Spokesperson for the Japan Oil, Gas, & Metal National Corp. (JOGMEC) Takami Kawamoto stated, “Japan could finally have an energy source to call its own.” The New York Times described methane hydrate as “a sherbet-like substance that can form when methane gas is trapped in ice below the seabed or underground.” Even though it may resemble ice, it will burn when heated. JOGMEC predicts at least 1.1 trillion cubic meters of this substance can be found in the eastern Nankai Trough located off the Pacific Coast. That could be enough natural gas to last Japan 11 years! Furthermore, an estimated 7 trillion cubic meters of “flammable ice” can be found throughout Japan’s waters, supplying natural gas for several decades.
When asked about the process, JOGMEC stated, “With specialized equipment, the team drilled into and then lowered the pressure in the undersea methane hydrate reserve, causing the methane and ice to separate. It then piped the natural gas to the surface.” The gas can also be attained by heating the solid methane hydrate, but this process uses a considerable amount of energy.
Countries including the U.S., Canada, Norway, and China are also interested in using hydrate deposits as an additional source of energy, since methane is a main component. In fact, according to the United States Geological Survey, sizeable offshore deposits of methane hydrates were found during recent mapping initiatives off the North and South Carolina coasts. This process is still in its infancy and will remain in trial production for the next several weeks, but over the next five years, Japan hopes to make this a commercially viable technique. Kawamoto explains that this process still remains somewhat of a mystery, “We are studying many things that are not yet known about methane hydrate.”
One mystery that still remains is the effect this process will have on the environment, since methane is a greenhouse gas. On one hand, if the technology is not perfected, methane emissions could increase the rate of global warming. But on the other hand, natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal, on which Japan still relies for a large portion of its energy needs. Having already invested hundreds of millions of dollars, Japan is expecting this project to be a great asset to its energy industry.
Because of the benefits methane hydrates provide, many are confident that this source of energy will have a lasting effect on the world. An article from Reuters stated, “There is enough gas locked in ice-like crystals buried beneath the permafrost and trapped under the oceans to guarantee the world will not run out of fossil energy for centuries.” Further research is needed to tell exactly how effective this technology will be, but scientists are hopeful that this procedure will guide Japan’s energy industry in the right direction.