Japan getting ready to mine ‘burning ice’ energy

About 50 Japanese companies are joining forces to support the commercialization of methane hydrate, a fuel anticipated in Japan as a next-generation energy source.

Methane hydrate, also known as “burning ice” for its icelike form, contains methane, which is also found in natural gas. But costs to extract and transport the fuel beneath the ocean floor remain an obstacle. By spearheading commercialization, Japan hopes to lead in exploiting the new energy, which could replace nuclear power or liquefied natural gas.

An organization dedicated to speeding up development of technologies such as deepwater drilling will be set up in April, and will include companies such as Chiyoda Corp. and JGC. It aims to encourage teamwork among companies, and participating businesses will share information on how to drill and transport the fuel, as well as ways to keep costs down.

The organization hopes to start commercialization of methane hydrate in or after 2023, with help from the Japanese government. It will call on other interested Japanese companies to join as early as this month, and plans its first meeting in April.

Japan relies heavily on fossil fuel imports from the Middle East, and its energy self-sufficiency is the lowest among major countries. Against that backdrop, there are high hopes for methane hydrate to become a domestic energy source. Some estimates indicate that there are methane hydrate reservoirs with 100 years’ worth of domestic LNG consumption within Japan’s exclusive economic offshore zone.

Test drills to extract the fuel were conducted by Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp., but obstacles such as cost, as well as prices of other energy sources — like the crash of crude oil — are making commercialization challenging.

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