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Japanese 'fire ice' could spark global energy revolution

During their three-day meeting last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again asked US President Barack Obama to speed up exports of American natural gas to help his beleaguered and energy-poor economy. But the big energy revolution that could ride to Tokyo's rescue may not come on tankers from US ports, but rather from deep underneath the sandy seabed off Japan's own shores.

Methane hydrates, which are chunky packets of ice that trap huge amounts of natural gas in the form of methane, are looming ever larger in Japan's plans to meet its needs for energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and skyrocketing bills for imported fuel.

Other Asian countries facing an energy crunch, including South Korea, China and India, are also hoping to tap into the apparently abundant reserves of methane hydrates, also known as fire ice. That could help fuel growing economies - but it could also fuel further tensions in regional seas that are already the stage for geopolitical sabre-rattling and brinkmanship over natural resources.

Totally unknown until the 1960s, methane hydrates could theoretically store more gas than all the world's conventional gas fields today. The amount that scientists figure should be obtainable comes to about 43,000 trillion cubic feet, or nearly double the 22,800 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable traditional natural gas resources around the world. (The United States consumed 26 trillion cubic feet of gas last year.)

That raises the possibility of an energy revolution that could dwarf even the shale gale that has transformed America's fortunes in a few short years. It could also potentially have big implications for countries, including the United States, Australia, Qatar and even Russia, which are banking on unbridled growth in the global trade of liquefied natural gas. The trick will be to figure out exactly how to profitably tap vast deposits of the stuff buried inside the seafloor.

"There's no doubt that the resource potential is enormous," said Michael Stoppard, managing director, global gas, at energy consultancy IHS. "I think it's the ultimate rebuttal to the peak oil and peak gas concept, but of course that's not much good unless you can develop it."

To that end, this month a 499-tonne survey vessel nosed out of the port of Sakai, once home to fabled gunsmiths and the finest makers of samurai swords in mediaeval Japan and today the prospective launching pad for a new

technological revolution.

For the next two months, the Kaiyo Maru No 7 will survey the seafloor right off Japan's west coast, the first step in a years-long process that could end with significant production of natural gas in Japanese waters. A promising methane hydrate site off the southeast coast was the subject of earlier surveys.

Japan is the epicentre of methane hydrates today not because it has so much of the resource - quite the opposite, most methane hydrates appear to be in gas-rich North America - but because it needs the resource so badly and is working faster than any other country to make fire ice a commercial proposition.

The United States and Canada are awash in methane hydrate resources, found both under the seabed such as in the Gulf of Mexico and in sub-Arctic permafrost. But both countries also have loads of conventional and shale gas, dampening industry enthusiasm for a complicated, lengthy research process.

Although some companies, such as Chevron, work alongside the US government on methane hydrate research, "there's a little less space in the industry for enabling field experiments and data collection than there was 10 years ago", said Ray Boswell, technology manager for methane hydrates at the US Energy Department's National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Not so in Japan. This spring, researchers in Japan reached a technical breakthrough, figuring out exactly how the gassy bundles of ice release 160 times their volume in methane as they are taken out of low-temperature, high-pressure environments. That could make commercial extraction, which experts estimate is at least 10 to 15 years off, an easier proposition.

Japan has sought to come up with a new energy blueprint in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster that shuttered the country's nuclear reactors, which led to a spike in imports of pricey fuel, especially natural gas. Japan's new energy plan, approved in April, puts nuclear energy back on the table. But Japanese officials concede that nuclear output will likely never reach the 30 per cent or so of Japan's electricity output that it was before the disaster.

As a result, the government included methane hydrate development in its top five priorities for new energy supplies. Japanese officials say they are working on methane hydrates because they need an alternative to liquefied natural gas (LNG), which costs about three times as much as natural gas in the United States.

"It's very easy to understand the Japanese motivation, and with China, India and South Korea you have very similar situations," said Tim Collett, a gas hydrate expert at the US Geological Survey.


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