Jim Armitage: Fire ice could be the break Japan deserves

New solution to energy problem could mean the country is self-sufficient in gas for 100 years

Hot news from Japan. The nation currently paying pretty much the highest price in the world for its energy since the Fukushima disaster may have found a solution. Better still, it has a really cool name: fire ice.

Technically, it's known as methane hydrate, but the companies trying to exploit it are savvy enough to know that naming your product after a manga cartoon hero (well, it sounds like one, anyway) is likely to get more investors interested in buying your shares. Surely the name "fracking" was only chosen as it seems alarmingly rude when you first hear it.

So, what is fire ice? Essentially, it's a source of natural gas found under the ocean, or in permafrost. It's methane that's dissolved in water then frozen into slush, either by cold temperatures or super-high pressure.

And according to the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp, which is doing the extraction, there could be enough deep under its waters that the country could be self-sufficient in gas for 100 years.

After the appalling devastation of the tsunami, followed by the Fukushima tragedy, and shameful incompetence (and worse) among the business elite, the Japanese could really do with a break.

It's far from clear whether they can get the stuff out of the water at an economic cost. The deposits are a long way down and tricky to exploit. With current technology, every million thermal units will cost about $50 to extract, compared with just $3 for US shale gas.

That dose of realism is probably why the initial surge in Japanese gas shares this week after the announcement of the successful fire ice test quickly died down again.

But don't underestimate the will of the Japanese to make this work. Its lack of domestic natural energy resources is what drove its enthusiasm for nuclear last time around.

The fire ice has formed over millions of years due to conditions in the deep-water Nankai Trench, a trough at the gap between two tectonic plates. It is geologically unstable territory, and prone to causing tsunamis.

In Japanese mythology, Namazu, a giant catfish god, creates the world's earthquakes. The catfish image is used on earthquake signs across the country to this day.

It would be a good thing if a by-product of Namazu's work could give back to Japan the energy it stole so brutally in 2011.

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