Japan Experiments with Methane Hydrate Fuel Extraction

By Wesley Fenlon

Testing out new drilling technology to tap into a massive unused source of carbon-based fuel.

No one knows what the power source of the future will be, but one thing's for sure: the Earth's deposits of oil will only last so long. As we consume more and more fuel, alternative energy sources become more critical. We put more money and research into electric cars like the Tesla. We improve the output and install base of solar and wind power facilities. And we think real hard about nuclear power. After Japan's Fukushima disaster, nuclear is a tough sell in all parts of the world, but especially in Japan.

On Tuesday the New York Times reported that Japan may have made a breakthrough in a new energy source to augment its remaining nuclear program. Japan's fossil fuel imports have increased over the past two years, since the Fukushima incident, which the Times reports has "weighed heavily on its economy, helping to push it to a trade deficit and reducing the benefits of the recently weaker yen to Japanese exporters."

Japan's new resource is methane hydrate, which looks a whole lot like ice and is sometimes referred to as flammable ice. "Methane hydrate is a sherbetlike substance that can form when methane gas is trapped in ice below the seabed or underground," writes the New York Times. "Though it looks like ice, it burns when it is heated."

A Japanese drilling sihp started a trial extraction process to retrieve the methane from a depth of approximately 1000 feet. After drilling into the seabed, the team lowered the pressure in the methane hydrate reserve, forcing the gas and ice to separate. The methane was pumped to the surface.

Japan's new resource, methane hydrate, looks a whole lot like ice and is sometimes referred to as flammable ice.

According to the Times, Japan has been researching methane hydrate extraction for about a decade. It's a difficult extraction process, which is why methane hydrate hasn't, until now, been considered a viable resource. The gas could also contribute to global warming like other fossil fuels, though the Times points out it's a cleaner alternative to coal, which Japan uses for about one fifth of its energy.

Methane hydrate could give Japan its own source of fossil fuels, allowing it to lower costly fuel imports. But if this drilling trial proves successful, it won't stay be a Japan-exclusive fuel source for long.

"Experts estimate that the carbon found in gas hydrates worldwide totals at least twice the amount of carbon in all of the earth’s other fossil fuels, making it a potential game-changer for energy-poor countries like Japan," writes the Times. "Researchers had already successfully extracted gas from onshore methane hydrate reservoirs, but not from beneath the seabed, where much of the world’s deposits are thought to lie."

At least twice the amount of carbon in all of the earth's other fossil fuels? You can bet we'll be hearing a lot more about methane hydrate over the next decade.