Japan and its Exploration of Flammable Ice

Japan has never had a simple relationship with the energy sector. Indeed, Japan imports a huge percentage of its energy, due to it having almost no resources of its own. In 2016, the country spent $28.9 billion on gas alone. To make matters worse, the nation’s multiple nuclear reactors, which were once a source of pride and joy, now sit dormant due to the fear of a repeat Fukushima disaster.

But, it is not all doom and gloom for Japan. Japanese scientists are exploring a new technology that may solve the country’s energy strife and dramatically reduce their dependency on foreign resources. This innovative solution comes in the form of ‘flammable ice’ (gas hydrates), which Japan’s ocean bed apparently has in abundance.

This new source of energy is a mixture of water and natural methane that has been frozen as a result of high pressure and low temperature. Typically it can be found under ocean floors and in the Arctic. But, no-one, as of yet, has succeeded in extracting it for commercial purposes. If this could be achieved, however, it would change the energy game, as it is believed that gas hydrates contain more energy than all the other fossil fuels in the world put together.

Naturally, Japan is trying to extract these gas hydrates and they are pouring billions into the effort. And with good reason. Being able to exploit a resource that can be found in its own territory will significantly increase Japan’s energy security. It will also reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and subsequently lower emissions. Natural gas is proven to be considerably greener than coal and other fossil fuels.

So, what exactly is flammable gas? As mentioned, it is a combination of water and natural methane and it looks just like ice. The astonishing thing about gas hydrates is the staggering quantity of natural gas that is contained in just one cubic metre. Per cubic metre of flammable ice there is 164 cubic metres of methane. But, the methane is hard to extract. Which is a shame because it is estimated that there is over one trillion cubic metres of the stuff under the floor of Japan’s ocean. This would be enough to satisfy Japan’s energy needs for over a decade.

Of course, it will come as no surprise to learn that Japan is not the only one with its eyes on this energy gold. China is also looking to exploit this resource and successfully managed to extract some gas hydrates back in May of this year. If any country manages to find an economical way to extract the gas from these gas hydrates “it would reshape the energy world” claims Christopher Knittel, professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. There are still a number of hurdles to be jumped in the form of technology but advocates of the new energy source are optimistic.

But, the mining of flammable ice doesn’t come without some potential environmental risks. The process could destabilise the seabed, which in turn could cause a tsunami, although Dr. Koji Yamamoto, leader of the research group for field development technology at MH21, thinks that the possibility of this happening is low. Another concern is that the methane could be released into the air by accident. This would be disastrous as methane is over 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide as far as its function as a greenhouse gas is concerned.

While there is all kinds of speculation as to how flammable ice will change the world, it looks like we won’t know anything for a while. Originally the Japanese government set the late 2020s as their target to have commercial production up and running but they have recently concluded that this date may have to be pushed back around a decade.




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