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Imagine lighting a fire to a hard-packed snowball or the mud deep inside the ocean bed. While that may sound impossible, it is not only feasible, but the government of Japan believes that they can use this energy to fuel the entire country, for at least a century.
As you have probably guessed the ice and mud in question are not the ones we normally encounter, but a special kind that has methane gas molecules locked inside, which is what burns, when in contact with a match. Also known as methane hydrate it was first discovered in the 1800's and for many years thought of as nuisance ice that clogs up pipelines during cold weather. However, when large deposits of it started being discovered naturally under the ice in Alaska and Canada, as well as, under the marine sediments on ocean floors, scientists began to wonder if it could be tapped for fuel.
But so far, no one has attempted to extract it on a large scale from either areas because of the challenges involved. In the case of the frozen methane, scientists are concerned that it may become unstable during mining or transportation, which would result in the release of a gas that is ten times worse than carbon dioxide.
As for the methane hydrate found under the ocean? The logistics of extracting it are simply too complex. That's because not only do the pipes first have to get to a kilometer below sea level to the seabed, but be lowered hundreds of meters down further, to where the gas is located. Also, many of the reserves lie in areas where the seabed starts to drop off, making it even more difficult to lay the pipes accurately. To add to the complications, the gas has to be separated and captured from the Chlarate, (the chemical substance that causes it to be in the frozen state) at the source. Otherwise, there is the danger that it will escape when it encounters the change in pressure, as it is being hauled up.
But all these hurdles didn't stop the Japanese from trying. On March 11th, 2013, the officials from Japan, Oil and Metals National Corporation announced that they had becoming the first country to successfully extract methane hydrate or 'fire ice' from the seabed. The company that has been drilling underwater off the Shikoku Island, Japan since January, announced that they had recently completed a two-week experiment in extracting the gas from its watery hideout and piping it up to the surface. They believe that by 2018, they will be able to develop the technology to safely extract enough fuel to satisfy the entire country's energy needs.
Though encouraging and certainly a step in the right direction, Japan still has to prove that it can achieve stable production and safely extract the gas without causing any catastrophic damage to the seabed. Besides the danger that large scale production may cause the gas to escape into the atmosphere, experts are also concerned that scraping through large areas of seabed could result in an underwater slide leading to tsunami - Something the Japanese sure don't want to experience ever again! But if scientists can overcome all these hurdles, methane could prove to be a great green energy alternative. Also, it would be cool to have things powered by these strange, ice-like nuggets wouldn't it?
Resources: wired.com, dailymail.co.uk