Japan has extracted natural “ice” gas from methane hydrates beneath the sea off its coasts in a technological coup, opening up a super-resource that could meet the country’s gas needs for the next century and radically change the world’s energy outlook.
2:04PM GMT 12 Mar 2013
The state-owned oil and gas company JOGMEC said an exploration ship had successfully drilled 300 metres below the seabed into deposits of methane hydrate, an ice-like solid that stores gas molecules but requires great skill to extract safely.
“Methane hydrates available within Japan’s territorial waters may well be able to supply the nation’s natural gas needs for a century,” said the company, adding that the waters under exploration also contain large reserves of rare earth metals.
Government officials said it was the world’s first off-shore experiment of its kind, though Japan been working closely with the Canadians. The US and China have their own probes underway.
The US Geological Survey said methane hydrates offer an “immense carbon reservoir”, twice all other known fossil fuels on earth (illustrated in pie chart below). However, it warned that the ecological impact is “very poorly understood”.
The immediate discoveries in Japan’s Eastern Tankai Trough are thought to hold 40 trillion cubic feet of methane, equal to eleven years gas imports. The company described the gas as “burnable ice”, saying the trick is free it from a crystaline cage of water molecules by lowering the pressure. Tokyo hopes to bring the gas to market on a commercial scale within five years.
Projected distribution of methane hydrate in seas around Japan (Source: Jogmec)
The breakthrough comes after 17 years of research and several hundred million dollars of investment. It could be the answer to Japan’s prayers, ending its reliance on expensive imports of fuel to meet almost all energy needs.
The country’s trade surplus has vanished since the government shut down all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and switched to other fuels, mostly liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Projected distribution of methane hydrate globally (Source: Jogmec)
It imported a record 87m tonnes of LNG last year at roughly five times the cost of shale gas available to US chemical companies and key industries, putting Japanese firms at a huge disadvantage.
Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics said methane hydrate could be the “game-changer” that restores Japan’s flagging fortunes, acting as a catalyst for revival much like the shale revolution in the US.
The state oil group plans to drill as deep as 7,000 metres below the sea floor eventually, going out in seas with depth of up to 4,000 metres.
Environmentalists are deeply alarmed by new focus on ice gas, fearing that it will set off a fresh energy race in the fragile eco-systems of the oceans and may cause landslides on the seabed.
The risk of methane leakage into the atmosphere could be a major snag. The US Geological Survey says the gas has ten times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.