Japan Hopes ‘Fire Ice’ Will End Energy Dependence

Researchers in Japan are hoping that they have unlocked the key to harnessing a new source of carbon energy – nicknamed ‘Fire Ice’.  Speaking just 24 hours after the two year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that crippled the Japanese energy economy, the Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corp (Jogmec) announced they have successfully extracted methane hydrate – sometimes called ‘fire ice’  – from under the sea bed for the first time.

Japan Hopes ‘Fire Ice’ Will End Energy Dependance

“A zone has been found around Japan that contains an amount of this resource equivalent to a large oilfield,” Yoshihiro Masuda, the University of Tokyo professor who leads the Jogmec project, which has been running for over a decade.

Fire Ice – The Commercial Applications

Experts say methane hydrate could be twice as plentiful as any other naturally occurring gas on the planet, and Japan’s step towards extracting it and turning the gas into a workable resource will likely grab the attention of commercial energy companies the world over.

Fire Ice Production

Whilst Japan has a high concentration of potential methane hydrate fields, other deposits of this hyper-abundant resource exist across the world, with high concentrations off the coasts of Russia, China and Mexico.

Whilst this is a significant step forward for harnessing the resource, it’s application as a commercial energy prospects remain far from certain. However, Ryo Minami – director of the oil and gas division at Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources – compared the breakthrough to shale gas, which was another relatively untapped resource until the last decade.

“Ten years ago, everybody knew there was shale gas in the ground, but to extract it was too costly. Yet now it’s commercialised.”

However, the method has already raised concerns over the impact that ‘fire ice’ will have on the environment. As many countries move towards decarbonisation, methane hydrate is a carbon energy, and is in fact twenty times more powerful as a heat-trapping agent than carbon dioxide.

This raises enormous climate change concerns. As with nuclear power at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and oil on off-shore drilling platforms, should an accident occur during extraction, vast amounts of methane could escape into the atmosphere, having incredible consequences to the atmosphere.

As with all subterranean extractions, there’s also the matter of balancing the pressure when drilling.  Hindered in no small way by the ocean baring down on drilling locations, the Japanese have been experimenting with how much of the seabed can be successfully depressurised and what volume of gas this yields – the consequences of which the US Geological Survey says is “very poorly understood”.