A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker docks at Tokyo Electric Power's Futtsu power station early in early 2013, as Japan's imports of the fuel reached record levels.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has many advantages as a fuel, but its use has always been somewhat constrained because of the difficulties in transporting it from one place to another. But natural gas may be poised to play an increasing role in the world's energy future, says the International Energy Agency (IEA).
That's primarily due to the fracking boom in the United States: Hydraulic fracturing has unlocked abundant stores of methane from shale formations in a nation that already had an extensive pipeline network for transporting gas. Methane burns with half the carbon emissions of coal, and produces no mercury, sulfur, or other hazardous pollutants. So other countries want to share in the shale gas boom, either by fracking domestically or importing more natural gas.
If the energy industry found a way to unlock the natural gas from methane hydrates, it would make the changes wrought by the fracking boom seem small. The U.S. Geological Survey says even the most conservative estimates conclude that 1,000 times more natural gas is trapped in methane hydrates than is consumed annually worldwide.
A global ramp-up of natural gas production would have a major implications for climate change. The IEA notes that if the world dramatically increased its use of natural gas, without making other changes to curb carbon emissions, global temperature would continue to rise beyond 2°C, the limit that nations have agreed is needed to avoid the worst impact of climate change. Abundant natural gas could displace not only coal but carbon-free electricity generation, like nuclear power, IEA warned.
Indeed, Japan, which is leading research into methane hydrates as an energy source, already has been displacing nuclear power with natural gas since the Fukushima disaster.
Japan's hopes for a new domestic supply of gas were raised by initial figures from its offshore methane hydrates test this month: 120,000 cubic meters (4.2 million cubic feet) of gas over six days. At that rate, the flow surpassed production in last year's 30-day U.S. government-ConocoPhillips onshore field trial in less than two days.
Methane hydrate researchers say that at this early stage, it's important to learn as much as possible about this potential fuel source. "Energy is going to be an issue—how secure is it, where is it going to come from," said Boswell. "Our goal is to do a rigorous scientific evaluation, so that if folks are thinking about how and when to incorporate it into our energy supply, we'll know a lot about it, and what its impact might be."