Japan Successfully Taps ‘Flammable Ice’ as an Energy Source for the First Time

by , 03/12/13

methane hydrate, flammable ice, japan, greenhouse gas, drilling, energy, domestic

Japan is faced with a number of challenges when it comes to domestic energy production – the country is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown it has greatly increased its purchase of fossil fuels. In order to find a local energy source, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has invested millions of dollars towards exploiting methane hydrate (also known as “flammable ice”) – and today they announced that they’ve successfully extracted it from the seabed for the first time. Methane is known to be an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is 20 times more damaging than CO2. If Japan taps reserves beneath the seabed, it could have catastrophic consequences for the environment.

methane hydrate, flammable ice, japan, greenhouse gas, drilling, energy, domestic

Flammable ice” is a substance that forms when a large amount of methane is trapped in water crystals below the seabed. A team aboard the Chikyu scientific drilling ship was able to release natural gas from 300 meters below the bottom of the ocean. They had been drilling since January in an area 80 km south of the Atsumi Peninsula in central Japan up to depths of 1,000 meters.

Using specialized equipment, the team converted methane hydrate into ice and natural gas, and then brought the gas to the surface. The ship is slated to continue their trial for two more weeks in order to analyze how much gas can be produced. Japan hopes to make the technology economically viable within the next five years, and it could potentially be sitting atop anywhere from 1.1 trillion to 7 trillion cubic meters of methane hydrate. This amount could fulfill the country’s natural gas needs for 11 to 100 years.

Abundant deposits of methane hydrate also exist in the seabed of Arctic regions, off coasts of North and South Carolina, and in areas of Canada, China, and Norway. Although the Japanese have developed a method of tapping into the energy resource, the question remains how the substance will affect the environment. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and its release could have disastrous effects on the atmosphere despite the economic advantages.

Via The New York Times

Images via the US Geological Survey and Wikicommons user Wusel007

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  1. GreatEmerald March 16, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Ice forms around methane not because it’s particularly cold down there, but rather due to very high pressure. Methane, like other alkanes, has hydrophobic tendencies, so it doesn’t dissolve in water, but rather gets “trapped” in a water cage, forming methane hydrate.
    For the deposits on the ocean floor, global warming really has no direct effect. Only the top level of the ocean is warmed, at the bottom water is always around 4 degrees Celsius. Surface warming may only increase the depth at which water starts being at 4 degrees.
    So extracting the compound means bad things overall. It’s better to use than coal and petrol, yes, but it’s still a pollutant when burned. And we have the added threat of having the methane leak directly into the atmosphere.
    It’s really sad to see Japan, of all countries, being on the front of many questionable decisions in regards to conservation overall. Trying to legalise whaling, declining to participate in establishing marine reserves, and now this…

  2. mgh3kusa March 15, 2013 at 1:07 am

    If this methane rich water ice is left on the ocean floor and at some point it gets warm enough to be released in an uncontrolled fasion it could be very very bad for anyone or thing nearby since it might form a cloud near the water surface and then burn.

  3. Eletruk March 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    A real problem is that rising sea temperatures can start melting this methane hydrate and even further accelerate global warming.
    Of course it’s still is technically a fossil fuel, and not renewable so it’s about as smart as fracking.

  4. Theodore Seeber March 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Uh, no. Burning the methane converts it into less damaging greenhouse gases- and with global warming apparently reaching unstoppable levels, this ice would release methane into the atmosphere anyway. Net result- this is better for the environment than what *could* happen.

  5. Ali Van March 12, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    why isn’t there a ban on this stuff?

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