Years after an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear shutdown hammered Japan’s energy supply, the country is taking steps to produce an entirely new domestic fuel from deep beneath the sea: “fire ice”, a frozen form of combustible methane. The estimated reserves are so enormous that they could meet Japan’s energy needs for the next century.
Researchers from the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation successfully extracted these methane hydrates for the first time in March 2013. Now they will further explore the Nankai trough (80 km off the Pacific coast), using a deep-sea drilling vessel and custom-designed robots that can dive down 7 km.
Methane hydrates are sorbet-like, highly concentrated stores of methane held in a water-molecule cage, or clathrate, which form under high-pressure conditions of at least 23 atm. One cubic meter of methane hydrate contains the equivalent of 164 m³ of methane gas. Methane hydrates are found either relatively close to the surface under Arctic permafrost or beneath the seabed, where the deposits tend to collect in sediments along geological fault lines. The global reserves of fire ice are estimated to be 20,000 trillion m³ – more than double the total known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas – even if much of it is inaccessible.
Little wonder that countries from Canada and Russia to New Zealand that have known fire ice reserves are eager to develop this new source of energy. But none are as far along as Japan, which hopes to have its first wells up and running soon.

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