Flammable Ice and the Future of Fossil Energy

re methane hydratesEarlier this month, Japan announced a major breakthrough by successfully extracting, then safely burning, natural gas from methane hydrates. These hydrates, also known as “flammable ice,” are essentially natural gas molecules trapped in a lattice of highly-pressurized ice crystals — and they could prove to be a game changer in world energy, particularly for energy-starved nations like Japan.

Estimates put the reserve Japan tapped for its experiment, in the Nankai Trough near Japan’s south-central coast, at about 40 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of methane — enough to replace 11 years worth of LNG imports (currently Japan’s primary source of energy). The story is even more remarkable elsewhere — a recent Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report estimates that total US hydrate reserves total over 51,000 tcf of gas, or enough gas for slightly more than 2100 years worth of use at the 2011 rate of 24.4 tcf per year.

Of course, none of these estimates take economics into account. Extracting and using hydrates is prohibitively expensive and is likely to remain a significant technical challenge for decades to come. However, the existence of such a significant remaining source of hydrocarbons should put the idea of “the end of fossil fuels” to bed — and potentially create significant competition for new, cleaner alternative energy sources.