Japan first to tap gas from 'flammable ice'

Japan made a major breakthrough in the production of a new energy source that has implications for the energy-poor country and the rest of the world.

Japan, the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas, the second largest importer of coal, and third largest importer of oil, may finally have a natural energy source of its own.

In a new energy breakthrough, the island nation says it has extracted natural gas from methane hydrate (also known as "flammable ice") nearly a mile below the ocean surface off the Japanese coast -- a world first, according to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The milestone came during a trial production period of this new energy source. If all goes well, and gas can continue to be extracted without problem for two weeks, The Japan Times reports that it would be a "'major step' toward future commercial development of the resource." And while its not yet clear when it will be a viable commercial energy option, the potential is high. Japan could meet its domestic natural gas needs for at least an estimated 11 years and as many as 100 years.

It's a major step forward for a country that doesn't produce much of its own energy, especially post-Fukushima . But, as Brad Plumer points out in a nice primer on the subject of gas hydrates, it's not just Japan that could benefit from this breakthrough. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that, worldwide, gas hydrates could contain 10,000 trillion cubic feet to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If that sounds like a lot, it is. The booming U.S. shale reserves -- just to compare -- contain an estimated 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The one drawback? Plumer explains: "It could prove impossible to keep global warming below the goal of 2°C if a significant fraction of this natural gas gets burned."

Photo: Flickr/NASA Earth Observatory

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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