‘Fire Ice’: How Close Is Japan To Unlocking World’s Next Major Energy Source?

By Philip Ross on March 13, 2013 1:07 PM EDT

Methane Gas
Pictured is a liquefied natural gas tanker at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Futtsu Thermal Power Station. Having discovered vast deposits of natural gas right off its coast, Japan could become energy independent as early as 2016 with its extraction of this new source of “fire ice." (Photo: Reuters)

"Fire ice", the informal term for the slushy, ice-like substance made of frozen water and methane gas found in deposits below the ocean floor, has Japan poised to become the world leader in unlocking Earth's next major energy resource.  Previously believed to exist only in outer space, in the far reaches of the solar system, "fire ice" could be "the new shale gas."

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A Japanese study estimates that there is at least 1.1 trillion cubic meters, or 40 trillion cubic feet, of methane hydrate, or "fire ice" in the eastern Nankai Trough, a submarine trough off Japan's Pacific coast just south of the country's main island of Honshu.

Japanese researchers have already successfully extracted "fire ice" from frozen undersea deposits. The announcement came from Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp on Tuesday. Commercial methane production could begin as early as three years from now should test wells prove safe and economic.

CNN reports that Japanese officials hope the accomplishment will win their resource-poor nation, which has almost no conventional fossil fuels of its own, some energy independence. The announcement came a day after the second anniversary of the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis that struck a serious blow to the country's atomic power industry and made bare that Japan has a shortage of domestic energy sources.

Japan is currently the third largest importer of natural gas, behind Germany and the U.S., taking in just over 98billion cubic meters a year (the U.S. rakes in 106billion cubic meters). With 1.1 trillion cubic meters of methane gas right underneath Japan's front porch, the country, currently the world's third largest economy, could support itself for 11 years off of its own, untapped reserves of natural gas. And after Japan shut down most of its nuclear power plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the potential for a new domestic source of energy is a welcomed finding for Japanese officials who want a cheaper form of power for their country. "Fire ice" could be the engine that propels Japan into a new era of self-reliance.

This comes as bad news for Australia, as the country is Japan's number one importer of natural gas, accounting for 70 percent of Australia's entire exports. "The resulting fall in gas imports would severely disrupt the global LNG [liquefied natural gas] market, and question the viability of projects in Australia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea," global energy forecaster Wood Mackenzie stated in a study published last December.

The U.S., Canada and China are also exploring the possibility of tapping into offshore methane deposits, BBC reports.  "Fire ice" would be a cleaner source of energy than oil or coal when burnt, but is also 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This has environmentalists worried about the consequences for climate change of a gas leak during drilling, CNN points out.

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