The search for energy resources continues hot and heavy. Because – like it or not – those who live in the developed world enjoy consuming hefty amounts of energy, from whatever source is handy. And billions in the developing world would like more of that good life too.
Enter “Flammable ice”, which is more properly called methane hydrate.
I’d never heard of it until maybe a year ago, when a relative spoke about the idea as something new on the horizon. It’s in the news this past week, with reports of a favorable exploratory experiment/expedition in Japan.
As reported in BBC news 3/12/13: “Japan says it has successfully extracted natural gas from frozen methane hydrate off its central coast, in a world first”. This New York Times article explains what the fuss focused on:
Methane hydrate is a sherbet-like substance that can form when methane gas is trapped in ice below the seabed or underground. Though it looks like ice, it burns when it is heated.
Experts say there are abundant deposits of gas hydrates in the seabed and in some Arctic regions. Japan, together with Canada, has already succeeded in extracting gas from methane hydrate trapped in permafrost soil. U.S. researchers are carrying out similar test projects on the North Slope of Alaska.
Japan’s keen interest in this potential energy resource is spurred by that country’s profound dependance on imported fossil fuel. The Wall Street Journal reports the discovery boosted stock prices for Japanese off-shore drilling companies, even though this energy extraction is still in the experimental stage.
And what of it? Does this count as good news? Not for those concerned about carbon’s effect on climate change.
But others are following Japan’s lead: Canada, the US and China are all looking into ways of exploiting methane hydrate deposits.
The US is currently funding 14 different research projects into methane hydrates after a successful test on Alaska’s North Slope. Reserves are said to be anything from 10,000 trillion cubic feet to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Although an unknown quantity could never be exploited, these vastly outweigh US shale reserves which are estimated to contain 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The exploitation of methane hydrates may make fracking and the tar sands look like a walk in the park.
Back in 2008, a CBC Technology and Science article called the resource “the world’s most promising and perilous energy resource“. Why? Because extraction could cause undersea landslides, which could cause unexpected releases of the substance, which has been linked to previous examples of world climate change. According to the CBC article:
More than 50 million years ago, undersea landslides resulted in the release of methane gas from methane hydrate, which contributed to global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years.
“Methane hydrate was a key cause of the global warming that led to one of the largest extinctions in the earth’s history,” Ryo Matsumoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo who has spent 20 years researching the subject…
NPR’s Christopher Joyce just examined this topic on Friday’s Morning Edition. Joyce reports other scientists say we can’t be sure about how this may play out:
Geologist Timothy Collett with the U.S. Geological Survey says it’s still too early to either bet on a bonanza or worry about the climate. “Anyone who gives you a definitive answer — including me — about the potential of it being either a climate issue or hazard [versus] being a resource, has got a 50-50 shot of being accurate. We don’t know enough,” he says.
So, an important development in the realm of science and energy extraction meets existing lines of fierce opposition.
Not sure where this may be heading, but it seems like a new development worth knowing about.