Burning Down East Asia

13 Mar

Burning the Hand That Freed YouThe Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo, in Korean; Takeshima, in Japanese) are about to get a whole lot less remote.

Japan has become the first country to successfully extract methane from frozen reserves under the ocean floor, opening a new potential energy source for the country.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas but methane hydrate offers an even more concentrated source. One cubic foot of hydrate traps about 164 cubic feet of methane gasaccording to the U.S. Geological Survey. The methane in hydrate is frozen within an ice lattice, forming a sherbet-like substance.

To get the methane gas out, Japanese engineers used a depressurization method that turns methane hydrate into methane gas. Extraction began this morning, about 30 miles offshore of Japan’s main island and at a depth of around 1,000 feet below the seabed.

This is not good news, and not just because of a silly turf war between Japan and South Korea. James Hansen has identified the burning of “fire ice” as a source of global warming in the Arctic Ocean.

Tremendous amounts of methane are frozen on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. As water temperatures increase, the threat of large emissions of methane bubbling out of the sea grows. Climate scientist James Hansen of NASA says the melting of methane hydrates in the earth’s past has triggered rapid global warming leading to major extinction events.

Even more worrying for Seoul is, that no where in this early stage of fire ice exploitation is South Korea listed as a competitor.

[Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation]Jogmec estimates that the surrounding area in the Nankai submarine trough holds at least 1.1 trillion cubic meters, or 39 trillion cubic feet, of methane hydrate, enough to meet 11 years’ worth of gas imports to Japan.

A separate rough estimate by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has put the total amount of methane hydrate in the waters surrounding Japan at more than 7 trillion cubic meters, or what researchers have long said is closer to 100 years’ worth of Japan’s natural gas needs.

“Now we know that extraction is possible,” said Mikio Satoh, a senior researcher in marine geology at the institute who was not involved in the Nankai trough expedition. “The next step is to see how far Japan can get costs down to make the technology economically viable.”

Methane hydrate is a sherbetlike substance that can form when methane gas is trapped in ice below the seabed or underground. Though it looks like ice, it burns when it is heated.

Experts say there are abundant deposits of gas hydrates in the seabed and in some Arctic regions. Japan, together with Canada, has already succeeded in extracting gas from methane hydrate trapped in permafrost soil. American researchers are carrying out similar test projects on the North Slope of Alaska.

Fortunately, the Nankai Trough is situated on the opposite, southern part of the Japanese island of Honshu, a blessing which might avert immediate conflict between the rival claimants. The South Korean are well aware of the flammable potential of the Liancourt Rocks.



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