The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
An Asian Energy Boom? The Song of Fire Ice Goes On

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.

Published on May 3, 2014 10:00 am
  • ShadrachSmith

    Just as the greens are gearing up to oppose methane emissions.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      I hear they’re going to force everyone to wear methane (Fart) scavenging butt plugs!

      • Andrew Allison

        ROTFLMAO! I just wouldn’t want to be the collector.

        • richard40

          I can just picture Al Gore personally collecting cow/human farts.

  • Andrew Allison

    Hyperbole alert: The last time I tried to light ice, all I got was a puddle of water.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It seems harvesting the Methane would be relatively easy, tent a large section of the ocean floor where Methane Hydrates are present, and pump warm surface water under the tent. The Methane Hydrate will melt, releasing the Methane to bubble up into the tent, and be piped to the surface. Using solar powered pumps to pump the solar heated surface water down to the bottom would make sense, and a collection tank that would float higher has the Methane displaced the water, would allow for regular visits by a tanker ship for collection.

    • Tom Billings

      Your technical scheme has several operational drawbacks, compared to using an undersea version of hydraulic fracturing. Underwater currents will play hob with a sizable collection tent. On the surface, gathering solar power for powering pumps, exposes large expanses of equipment to all the weather, including typhoons, of the Western Pacific.

      The thinly layered nature of most Clathrate deposits makes the standard fracking technology of drilling down, and angling the drill bore out to the horizontal a necessity for both heating and collecting the methane. The collection by drill bores above the drill bore carrying hot water will allow the methane to be pumped straight into a seabed pipeline headed to shore. This is a natural transport method for deposits that are always below about 100 meters depth, but still on relatively shallow continental shelves of continents.

      Finally, pumping air back down an annular pipe inside the methane delivery pipeline to the boreholes, combusting part of the methane itself to heat water inside the piping before it is sent into the heating bores, will be far more robust, operationally, than anything spread out on the surface to collect solar heat.

  • richard40

    I would never underestimate the ability of the Japanese to develop new technology, they are a very resourceful and forward looking people. I suspect the global warming fanatics will hate this though, since they will be creating yet another fossil fuel.