November 2018

Last year, Japan succeeded in extracting an untapped fuel from its ocean floor – methane hydrate, or flammable ice. Proponents argue that it will offset energy crises, but what are the environmental risks?

  • By Martha Henriques

23 November 2018

Future Now

The Economics of Change

Buried below the seabed around Japan, there are beds of methane, trapped in molecular cages of ice. In some places, the sediment covering these deposits of frozen water and methane has been eroded away, leaving whitish mounts of what looks like dirty ice rearing up out of the seafloor.

Put a match to this sea ice and it doesn’t just melt, it ignites

Take a chunk of this stuff up to the surface and it looks and feels much like ice, except for a give-away fizzing sensation in the palm of your hand, but put a match to it and it doesn’t just melt, it ignites. Large international research programmes and companies in Japan, among other countries, are racing to retrieve this strange, counter-intuitive substance – known as fiery ice – from beneath the seafloor to use its methane for fuel. If all goes to plan, they may even start extraction by the end of the next decade. But the journey so far has been far from smooth.

There’s no doubt that methane hydrates could offer a major source of fuel, with recent estimates suggesting they constitute about a third of the total carbon held in other fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. Several nations, notably Japan, want to extract it. It is not hard to find, often leaving a characteristic seismic signature that can be detected by research vessels. The problem is retrieving that gas and bringing it to the surface.

“One thing that’s clear is that we’re never going to go down and mine these ice-like deposits,” says Carolyn Ruppel, who leads the US Geological Survey’s Gas Hydrates Project.