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Japan taps first gas from methane hydrates

The country has taken an significant step towards a next-generation fuel source

Japan has succeeded in extracting gas from offshore methane-hydrate deposits that officials say could be a vital step towards tapping a next-generation fuel source to ease the nation's energy dependence.

Japan has succeeded in extracting gas from offshore methane-hydrate deposits that officials say could be a vital step towards tapping a next-generation fuel source to ease the nation's energy dependence.

The ministry of economy, trade and industry (METI) said the gas, extracted from ice-like deposits of water and natural gas below the seabed, marks a world first, and could offer an alternative energy source to known hydrocarbon reserves.

Production is not yet commercially viable, but Japan aims to start commercially producing the gas around 2018-19, according to officials at METI. "This is the world's first trial production of gas from oceanic methane hydrates, and I hope we will be able to confirm stable gas production," Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese trade minister, said.

Nevertheless, prospects for commercial extraction remain far from certain. The minister pointed to the success of large-scale shale-gas production in the US, which was initially doubted. But he did acknowledge that obstacles remain, including cutting the cost of drilling wells.

Significantly, for resource-poor Japan it could finally have an energy source to call its own, said Takami Kawatomo, spokesman for the Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corporation (Jogmec), the state-run company leading the test.

Oil and gas imports have soared since March 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis triggered the closure of Japan's nuclear power plants and pushed Japan into a ballooning trade deficit, which reached 1.6 trillion yen ($17.1 billion) in January. Japan pays some of the highest prices in the world for imports of liquefied natural gas, which hit a record 87.3 million tonnes last year. 

Further energy price increases are expected to place added pressure on Japan's economy. But if the commercial potential of domestically produced gas from methane hydrates is realised it could help mitigate the economic strain over the medium term.

As part of the offshore production test in the Pacific seabed south of Honshu, the well will be drilled deeper to a depth of around 300 metres in waters 1,000 metres deep. Following the conclusion of the two-week long flow test, which started on 12 March, new technology will be established to help develop the offshore methane hydrate deposits, said METI.

The US Department of Energy describes methane hydrates as a lattice of ice that traps methane molecules but does not bind them chemically. They are released when heated or depressurised.

One of the aims of the Japanese test is to measure the amount of seabed that can be sufficiently depressurised to release collectable gas.

The wider the area that can be exploited with each well, the more economically viable the technology will be.

Jogmec estimates that the surrounding area in the Nankai submarine trough holds at least 1.1 trillion cubic metres of methane hydrates.

Governments in Canada, the US, Norway and China are also looking at exploiting methane-hydrate deposits as an alternative energy source. Japan, together with Canada, has already succeeded in extracting gas from methane hydrates trapped in permafrost soil.

Most deposits lie below the seabed or under permafrost. But even if methane is extracted safely, burning it will add more toxic emissions into the atmosphere, warn environmentalists.

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