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Japan's Methane Hydrates and the Future of Global Energy

methane hydratesAll 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.

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Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on March 19, 2013

Too bad. Methane produces CO2 as it is burned. 

They should just cover the polluted land with solar panels. It would produce more power than the nuclear power plants that are now defunct. Sure it wouldn't be base power. However the excess power can be converted to methane and this methane would be carbon neutral. In other words the CO2 that was used in it's creation would be returned. 

Roger Faulkner's picture
Roger Faulkner on March 26, 2013

Ivor is right of course; however in comparing this to gas from fracking, there are huge benefits, for example no chance of harming drinkable water supplies. The Japanese are well aware of the potential danger of tsunami generation because of a subsea landlide that could be caused by methane hydrate mining; in fact the methane hydrate layers are major destabilizing factors at many of the oceans' continental shelf edges. Mining done right could stibilize these steep shelf edges; done badly and it could trigger a massive trunami. It is known that some of the biggest tsunamis in the past were caused by subsea landslides.

Methane hydrate also has the possible advantage of being so widely distributed that it will not be possible for any country, countries, nor corporations to control the supply (if the harvesting technologies become available). It is also crucial, and perhaps more difficult than is the case with fracking to harvest the methane hydrate with very little leakage into the atmosphere (needed because methane is ~20X as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas).

Ben Wilson's picture
Ben Wilson on July 8, 2013

 

Fascinating the amount of petroleum hydrocarbons from dead plants and animals we keep finding on this planet…and the moon of Saturn, Titan.  We will need all the energy we can use as we plunge into the coming ice age.  Despite what the current groupthink dogma proclaims, the current CO2 levels are the lowest they have been in earth history, towards the bottom threshold to sustain plantlife.

 

Stay warm, and enjoy the interglacial.

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