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  „Flammable Ice“: the Fuel of the Future? (1)

Vaiva Sapetkaitë, Institute of International Relations and Political Science Vilnius University
2013 05 13

In March a Japanese state-owned oil and gas company announced it had successfully extracted gas from methane hydrate deposits from under the seabed. Why is it important? Huge amount of gas extracted from the above sources determine radical changes in the global energy map since the Earth is rich with these resources.

Although methane hydrate or „flammable ice“ has been spread widely, so far the related “revolutions” could have hardly been expected. The main reasons included a possible harm to nature and lack of economically feasible technological solutions.

Methane hydrate or methane ice consists of methane which is enclosed (under high pressure and low temperature) in frozen water. The methane hydrates occur mainly on the shallow continental shelf and in the Land of Eternal Winter.  

Energy resource potential of methane hydrates has been realised many years ago. According to the Canadian geologist S.Dallimore, methane hydrates are a concentrated form of natural gas.The US Geological Survey says methane hydrates offer an "immense carbon reservoir", twice all other known fossil fuels on earth.

In view of this, the U.S., Japan, Canada, China and India invested quite a lot of money to the methane hydrate related projects but only Japan managed to achieve a real breakthrough. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation JOGMEC carried out successful experimental tests and extracted huge amount of flammable gas from the methane hydrates in the eastern shores of the Honshu Island. The tired of being dependent on the changing moods of the gas suppliers-giants, can be happy, but it is too early to relax: there are still many „buts“.

Moreover, experiments of JOGMEC are only the beginning of the road. According to the Company‘s representative T.Samechima, it is expected that 10 more years will be required for more research effort.

Another important thing is that extraction of methane hydrates could be detrimental to the environment. According to Lithuanian scientist J.Grigas „methane hydrates are stable only at low temperatures and high pressures, and typically at water depths greater than 500 metres; at a smaller depth they simply dissent. In the atmosphere coal bed methane is bound to oxygen, produces carbon dioxide and, consequently, contributes to the „greenhouse effect“.  It is assumed that alongside the climate change and melting ice, the amounts of extracted methane could dangerously increase the Earth‘s temperature.

Besides, deposits of methane hydrates are found in the especially ecologically sensitive territories: in the continental (including Antarctica) shelves, in the zones of the Land of Eternal Winter; therefore in case of a technological disaster the consequences could be very painful.

On the other hand, methane hydrates could become a factor reducing pollution. Compared with some other fossil fuels, natural gas emits the least amount of carbon dioxide into the air; thus, life in the planet could improve if the developing economies start using the gas extracted from hydrates (these countries consume cheap but high-polluting coal). Both, China and India are interested in the above possibilities.

Taking into account global developments, it could be assumed that methane hydrates will proceed to be a focal point of discussion, including better and more secure extraction technologies. The share of methane hydrates in the global energy sources should increase and become another serious alternative in the gas market.  

According to experts, this alternative looks nice only in the medium-term perspective since transition to the renewable energy is inevitable. Yet we shouldn‘t forget that „go green“ approach is popular in the West, whereas major pollutants of atmosphere – China and India – will hardly be able to shift to the green energy in the near future.

It is good that industrial states demonstrate their interest in the extraction of gas from the methane hydrates. In case of success, this could become a new energy alternative and yield further ecological benefits. And once this fuel is here, it’ll stay for good... 

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