Wed, Mar 13, 2013 - Page 15 News List

Japan takes ‘fire ice’ from seabed


A burner on deep sea drilling vessel Chikyu expels gas flames over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan’s Aichi Prefecture in a photograph made available by Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp yesterday.

Photo: EPA

Japan yesterday said it had successfully extracted methane hydrate, known as “fire ice,” from its seabed, possibly unlocking many years’ worth of gas for the resource-starved country.

In what they are claiming as a world first, a consortium is drilling for the hydrate, a fossil fuel that looks like ice, but consists of very densely packed methane surrounded by water molecules and sits 1km below sea level.

The solid white substance burns with a pale flame, leaving nothing but water. One cubic meter of it is estimated to contain many times the equivalent volume of methane in gas form.

The consortium, led by Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp, began initial work in February last year and started a two-week experimental production yesterday, a Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official said.

“It is the world’s first offshore experiment producing gas from methane hydrate,” the official said, adding that the team successfully collected methane gas extracted from the half-frozen substance.

Under the project, the consortium is to separate methane — the primary component of natural gas — from the solid clathrate compound under the seabed using the high pressures available in the deep, officials said.

A huge layer of methane hydrate containing 1.1 trillion cubic meters in natural gas — equivalent to Japan’s consumption of the gas for 11 years — is believed to lie in the ocean floor off the coast of Shikoku Island, western Japan, the officials said.

“We aim to establish methane hydrate production technologies for practical use by the fiscal 2018 year” ending on March 2019, a consortium official said.

The move comes as resource-poor Japan has struck out in search of new energy supplies after it shut down its nuclear reactors in the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant two years ago.

Japan switched off its atomic reactors for safety checks following the disaster, which saw a wall of water hit the nuclear plant, crippling its cooling systems and sending reactors into meltdown.

Only two of Japan’s 50 reactors are now operational, with more stringent safety standards and political nervousness following in the wake of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

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