Why Japan Is Drilling Offshore For "Burning Ice"

The newest form of natural gas might be the most potent yet. But while Japan is using it to replace nuclear power, mining it could just cause more disasters.

methane hydrate

Ever since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has been scrambling to find alternative energy sources to replace its reliance on nuclear power. Just last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for a nuclear-free future for the country. So now the technologically savvy country is attempting to perform a first in the energy industry: extracting natural gas from deposits of methane hydrate (aka "burning ice") located in the seabed southwest of Tokyo. And it could end in disaster if Japan isn't careful.

Methane hydrates—ice-like crystals seen in places with high pressure and low temperatures—are often found on the ocean floor, where gas crystallizes as it comes into contact with the icy sea water. No one has ever attempted to extract methane hydrates offshore; it has only been attempted on land in Canada (using technology developed in Japan, natch).

But Japan may want to take its time on the $127.5 million project, which aims to start commercial drilling early next decade. "Methane hydrates are a geological hazard, and it's been well established for decades that they are dangerous," said Richard Charter, a member of the Department of Energy's methane hydrates advisory panel, in an interview last year with Discovery News. "Until 10 or 15 years ago, the industry would avoid them no matter what."

That's because the presence of methane hydrates makes the seafloor unstable. If accidentally released into the atmosphere, methane could speed up climate change (methane is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2). And as Popular Mechanics explains, decomposing hydrates near the seafloor's surface could cause landslides on the continental slope that trigger tsunamis.

But with big risks come big potential rewards. Methane hydrates are chock-full of natural gas; one cubic meter of methane hydrate releases a whopping 164 cubic meters of natural gas, and hydrate deposits are often hundreds of meters thick. According to the DOE, the energy content of methane in hydrate form may surpass the energy content of every other fossil fuel.

In a world with dwindling fossil fuel resources, there's no way that energy-hungry countries can afford to ignore an opportunity like that, even as alternative energy sources gain ground. Let's just hope that Japan—and every other country that decides to tap into the methane hydrate goldmine—takes serious safety precautions.

[Images: Top: Wikipedia; Bottom: Wikipedia]

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  • jkw

    Japan will use MH.  It is unfortunate that China is not technologically sophisticated enough to use MH, but must use coal.  The US will engage in makeweight arguments against the use of MH because the technology for oil and coal is mature and in place and long since paid for in many cases. MH is clean and safe to use and that is the reason for the Grade B Disaster Stories about it splitting the world and boiling the oceans as dangers of extraction--and of course the BP oil spill---which raises the specter of disaster for all off shore drilling.  

  • Ryma

    Japan has been a member of the JIP (Joint Industry Project) surrounding methane hydrate research and development for over 10 years. The suggestion that they are only recently (since Fukushima disaster) exploring the possibility of poking around in this force of nature which is believed by some to have played a catalyst role in a previous extinction event in the geological record of our planet (Google: methane hydrate K-T event) is absolutely a lie. Not only were they drilling experimental hydrate wells prior to the large earthquake and tsunami, but their experimentations with methane hydrate could have played a role in triggering the earthquake and tsunami. (there is an article about a possible role of a crack forming in a subsurface methane hydrate layer in the sumatra tsunami that killed so many people Google: methane hydrate, tsunami). Did you know that the disagreement between Japan and S Korea over the uninhabited island of Dokdo (before the tsunami) is really about sea floor methane hydrate deposits surrounding the island? I tell you one more interesting fact about methane hydrate. One part of the proposed drilling method to penetrate an impermeable methane hydrate layer and release the methane reserve beneath involves using seawater as drilling fluid. Sound familiar? They used seawater for drilling fluid during the deepwater horizon disaster and the location of that experiment was within the bounds of LEG III of the experimental methane hydrate drilling zone designated by the efforts set in motion by the methane hydrate research and development act passed in America in 2000. This article tells only part of the story, research this subject for yourself. Please. (Lots of info on the US DOE website, a place to start anyway)