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Japan Just Opened Up a Whole New Source for Fossil Fuels

For the first time, natural gas has been pulled from offshore methane clathrates

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An artist’s rendering of methane hydrate’s small-scale structure, with a methane molecule in green and gold trapped within a blue and silver cage of water. Photo: Masakazu Matsumoto

Found deep underwater in coastal oceans worldwide, a slushy mix of natural gas and water ice is on path to becoming an energy source of future, reports the BBC. Japanese researchers announced that, for the first time, they have managed to successfully extract useful natural gas from the mix, known as a methane clathrate.

Previous work on methane clathrates found on land have been used to produce natural gas, but this is the first time that ocean floor deposits have been tapped. The stores of offshore methane clathrates around Japan, says the BBC, are estimated at around 1.1 trillion cubic metres of the mix, enough to supply “more than a decade of Japan’s gas consumption.” The United States Geological Survey, says The Washington Post, estimates that gas hydrates worldwide “could contain between 10,000 trillion cubic feet to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.”

Some of that gas will never be accessible at reasonable prices. But if even a fraction of that total can be commercially extracted, that’s an enormous amount. To put this in context, U.S. shale reserves are estimated to contain 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Japan says that the technology to usefully produce natural gas from methane clathrates is still around five years off.

Burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal, and replacing coal or other fossil fuels with natural gas is often looked at as a a way to limit global warming. However, fossil fuels are still fossil fuels, and burning this new source of energy could do a wondrous amount of damage. The Washington Post:

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there’s more carbon trapped inside gas hydrates than is contained in all known reserves of fossil fuels.

…Bottom line: It could prove impossible to keep global warming below the goal of 2°C if a significant fraction of this natural gas gets burned.

The New York Times:

“Gas hydrates have always been seen as a potentially vast energy source, but the question was, how do we extract gas from under the ocean?” said Ryo Matsumoto, a professor in geology at Meiji University in Tokyo who has led research into Japan’s hydrate deposits. “Now we’ve cleared one big hurdle.”

The other big hurdle is deciding whether this is a path worth following.

More from Smithsonian.com:

A Massive Field Of Frozen Greenhouse Gas Is Thawing Out

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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