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Japan confirms energy breakthrough: gas production from seabed methane hydrate

12 March 2013

On March 12, Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) said an exploration vessel had successfully drilled 300 metres below the seabed into deposits of methane hydrate, an ice-like solid that stores gas molecules but is difficult to extract safely. The state-owned oil and gas company said this was a world first.

The tests are being carried out by the drillship Chikyu off the south-east coast of Japan. Photo: JOGMEC
The tests are being carried out by the drillship Chikyu off the south-east coast of Japan. Photo: JOGMEC

JOGMEC said the tests were carried out by the deep sea drilling vessel Chikyu operated by JAPEX, which would remain on site east of Japan continuing the flow tests until the end of March. The methane recovered is being flared from the rear of the specially-adapted vessel. 

Safety remains a major issue, and the company has asked shipping and air traffic to stay clear of the Chikyu as it continues with the test drilling programme.

Production testing will continue for the next two years, with commercial production starting in 2016, if all goes according to plan. 

"Methane hydrates available within Japan's territorial waters may well be able to supply the nation's natural gas needs for a century," the company said.

Japan has been working closely with Canada on this unconventional gas project, and the US and China have similar programmes under development.

The US Geological Survey says methane hydrates offer an "immense carbon reservoir", twice all other known fossil fuels on earth. However, it warns that the ecological impact is "very poorly understood".

The immediate discoveries in Japan's Eastern Tankai Trough are thought to hold 40 trillion cubic feet of methane, equal to eleven years of gas imports for Japan. The company described the gas as "burnable ice", saying the main difficulty is freeing it from a crystaline cage of water molecules by lowering the pressure. 

The breakthrough comes after 17 years of research and several hundred million dollars of investment. It could at a stroke free Japan from its past reliance on expensive imports of fuel to meet almost all of its energy needs.

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