Mine ice from the sea floor, light it on fire, then use it to power a nation? Wizardry! Except that’s exactly what Japan is hoping to do, after successfully tapping methane hydrates—the so-called “fire ice”—from an oceanic deposit last March. It found another supply of the abundant, and relatively clean-burning, frozen form of natural gas at the bottom of the Sea of Japan in December. Now, as Foreign Policy reports, the island country is sending out ships to search for the fossil fuel, hoping to ultimately free it from its deepwater “ice cages”:
[L]ast week a 499-ton survey vessel nosed out of the port of Sakai, once home to fabled gunsmiths and the finest makers of samurai swords in medieval 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.
Why is Japan leading the way? Because:
Japan is the epicenter 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.
Japan has grown especially desperate for new energy sources in the wake of the Fukushima shutdown. Experts say that commercial production of Japan’s methane hydrates won’t begin for another 10 or 15 years, however. But thanks to a new breakthrough, the extraction process might be cheaper than expected (though it’s still very costly). And Japan’s dispute with neighboring China won’t make things any easier. The East China Sea, where Japan is engaged in a standoff with China over a cluster of islands, is reputed to be a trove of untapped energy sources, including oil and gas as well as fire ice.
Do not underestimate Japan’s wealth of technological resources, or Prime Minister Abe’s determination to beef up the nation’s military capabilities, for which a substantial energy supply is an obvious requirement. Even though the process sounds fantastical, Japan may pull it off.