Methane, trapped on the sea floor in icy deposits, could become a major future source of fuel. Japan, which currently produces only one thousandth of the oil it needs, is betting on it.
Cold, high-pressure water traps methane secreted by organisms on the sea floor causing it to form methane hydrate. The location, quantities and extraction methods for this energy source are just beginning to be understood, but a US Geological Survey estimate places the world supply at about twice that of all other fossil fuels combined.
Methane hydrate has been found in offshore deposits all around the world, including off both US coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, off the western shores of Africa, along India’s coastlines, off the coast of China and in Japan’s territorial waters.
The Japanese government runs the best funded and most sophisticated methane hydrate research program in the world, with $700m invested over the last ten years. This is still a small fraction of total Japanese R&D investment in, for example, conventional oil and gas, which was about $2.9b over the ten years ending in 2011. But that could change if current efforts to extract methane hydrate continue to be successful.
In February, the Japanese government announced plans for developing commercially viable technology for exploiting methane hydrate by 2018. The country has every incentive to develop this potentially vast new resource given its lack of other resources and its troubled nuclear power industry.
A primary research tool in this endeavor is the Chikyu, a $540m scientific research vessel whose original mission was to probe to the Earth’s mantle with a 9.5km drill. Now, it has been pressed into service exploring methane hydrate deposits off the Japanese coast and developing methods to extract the gas that could, one day, result in industrial-scale production. An expedition by the Chikyu in March returned samples of methane hydrate, which looks like muddy ice, from the sea floor. These samples showed promise for future gas production.
Given enough research and development and investment in production, methane hydrate could prove as big an energy game changer for Japan as shale gas has proven to be for the United States.
And, if Japan is successful in developing its methane hydrate resources, other countries may well follow. Already the US (with a $15m programme), India and South Korea ($30m each) are exploring methane hydrate as a potential future energy source. Although these are still relatively small programmes, their size could change quickly once the technologies for extracting methane hydrate economically are developed and become available.