Methane hydrate is a compound in which a large amount of methane is trapped within a crystal structure made up of water, forming a solid which is similar to ice. The energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is extremely powerful and could exceed the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, with one cubic foot of methane hydrate containing approximately 160 cubic feet of natural gas.
Japan has been one of the major drivers in the development of ice gas over the last few years. Back in March 2013 Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC) reported that it had successfully extracted natural gas from methane hydrate deposits under the seabed offshore Japan, using a depressurization method to flow gas from methane hydrate layers. The successful extraction of gas from methane hydrate was an exciting development for Japan – considering around 40 trillion cubic feet of methane is held in hydrate deposits off the island of Honshu, according to JOGMEC – and promised a new energy source for the world.
Following JOGMEC's significant work in the field of ice gas, JAPEX established a joint venture company in October 2014, along with ten other firms, in order to assist in a medium to long-term offshore production test of methane hydrate conducted by the Japanese government. The JV firm, Japan Methane Hydrate Operating Co., which received an initial capital contribution of $2.8 million, aims to provide contract services on field operations in the offshore production test of pore-filling type methane hydrate and share its findings to contribute towards the commercialization of the energy source.
Should Japan ever commercialize ice gas, the proposed construction of a gas pipeline between the country and Russia's Sakhalin Island – announced by Tokyo Gas consultant Shigeru Muraki at the third annual Russian-Japanese Forum on Cooperation in Business, Technology and Culture in May 2015 – could in the very distant future result in methane hydrate being exported to Europe. Muraki said that the 932-mile pipeline would cost $3.5 billion to construct.
In May of last year, New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) reported that a joint New Zealand-German research team had discovered indications of large areas of methane hydrate below the seafloor in the ocean near New Zealand's east coast. The findings were made by a 16-person team, which used 3D and 2D seismic and echosounder technology to map 99 gas flares in a 19 square mile area, which were venting from the seabed in columns up to 800 feet high. This is believed to be the densest concentration of seafloor gas vents known in New Zealand.
Using the 3D seismic data NIWA showed that landslides on New Zealand's east coast, which can be up to 9 miles long and 320 feet thick, allowed the gas build-up in the sediment to be released into the ocean. In a recently-submitted scientific paper the team claimed that these landslides could actually be the seafloor equivalent of glaciers, but with frozen methane instead of ice. The project's ongoing investigations will include drilling into the landslides in 2016, according to NIWA. New Zealand’s ice gas reserves are certainly formidable, with geoscience research firm GNS Science stating that even if only a fraction of New Zealand's gas hydrates are economically recoverable, they could provide the main source of natural gas for the country for several decades.
In the Arctic Ocean, a University of New Hampshire geologist recently identified a new source of methane for gas hydrates: abiotic methane, in other words, methane that is not generated by decomposing carbon. Research led by the UNH professor indicated that gas hydrates throughout the Arctic may be supplied by a significant portion of abiotic gas. The study focused on the Arctic mid-ocean ridge system, where scientists have claimed that abiotic methane can be generated through serpentization, which involves the reaction of seawater with hot mantle-derived rocks.
The researchers showed that these abiotic methane hydrates were remarkably stable, spanning back approximately two million years, and that they exist in very deep water, which makes the methane less vulnerable to potential release, according to the study. The release of methane from gas hydrates into the atmosphere is a potential hazard for companies looking to commercialize the ice gas resource.
Elsewhere in the Arctic, JOGMEC and the National Energy Technology Laboratory – an affiliate of the U.S. DOE – recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding concerning Japan-US collaboration on methane hydrate development in Alaska. As part of the MoU JOGMEC and NETL will conduct joint research into ice gas in Alaska until around 2019, which could lead to the development of commercialization technology.
It's unclear exactly when methane hydrates will enter a state of commercialization: Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi believes it could be as early as 2023, although the U.S. Geological Survey noted that the National Petroleum Council thinks that we will not see significant ice gas production until after 2025. One thing is clear though – if methane hydrates can be commercialized, it'll be great news for ice gas-rich nations all over the world.