Fire Ice, A New Fuel Source Found In Japan’s Seabeds

“Fire ice,” a nickname for a natural gas called methane hydrate, has been drilled successfully offshore for the first time on Tuesday, according to Japanese officials. About 1.1 trillion cubic meters, enough to fuel Japan’s natural gas needs for over a decade, is thought to be buried in the ocean floor off the coast of Shikoku Island in western Japan. Now, for the first time, and for the planned duration of a two week test, Japan is extracting the fuel.

In May 2012, the United States and Japan joined forces to test the so-called “fire ice” drilling technology on the North Slope of Alaska. US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that it was a first small step for the US to be able to extract “a vast, entirely untapped resource that holds enormous potential.” Chu said that the technology could help produce clean energy not just in Alaska but also on the Gulf Coast.

The Department of Energy said that “fire ice,” or methane hydrates, are “3D ice-lattice structures with natural gas locked inside, and are found…along nearly every continental shelf in the world. The substance looks remarkably like white ice, but it does not behave like ice.”

The United States is currently on track to become the top oil-producing nation by 2017 as well as one of the top exporters of natural gas. An industry group said that natural gas, which is mostly methane, is particularly vital because it’s a relatively inexpensive and clean-burning form of fuel.

“Fire ice” could be even more critical for Japan. Two years ago, the island nation suffered a devastating tsunami that destroyed a nuclear power plant, leading to three active generators suffering meltdowns that spewed radioactive material into the environment. Japan responded by shutting down its 50 nuclear plants for safety checks. Only two have been reopened.

If the tests work out, “fire ice” could help safely replace some of Japan’s lost energy supplies.

[photo of Mt. Fuji, Japan from space courtesy NASA and the International Space Station]