CROWDED around a hole in the ice, the dozen or so people clad in thick jackets could be local fishermen. But the rope winch, carefully lowering a long, fat pipe into the frigid Siberian water, hints that it is not dinner they are here to catch.For over a decade, scientists have trekked to this remote corner of the Russian wilderness from around the world, funded by governments eager to understand how to exploit these peculiar accumulations. "We've hosted scientists from everywhere – Japanese, Belgian, Indian and others," says Oleg Khlystov, a geologist at the Limnological Institute. They make the journey to Baikal because the lake's combination of storm-free waters, and – in the winter – a 1-metre-thick ice platform, provide ideal conditions for studying the icy crystals below. This year, the effort finally paid off, and a race is now on to harness them. Whoever succeeds could usher in the world's next energy bonanza, and redraw the world energy map in the process.
Finding methane hydrates is only the first of many problems, though. Extracting them is also challenging. For example, the gas expands to 160 times its initial volume by the time it reaches the surface, which can blow standard drilling equipment to bits.Research at Baikal had already helped Japan determine the seismic signatures of different kinds of methane hydrate deposits. Even tucked into sediments hundreds of metres beneath the bottom of the ocean, hydrates can be located by their characteristic high acoustic velocities – making hidden reservoirs easier to hunt down.To extract the gas, the Japanese team used conventional methods. That involved first lowering a drill about 1000 metres to the bottom of the eastern Nankai Trough. Then they had to drill another 300 metres into the rock and drain the water out of the hydrate layer to lower the pressure in the deposit and free the methane gas. They could then pump it to the surface.The JOGMEC researchers acknowledge that they "need to know much more" before starting commercial-scale production, but their initial success – 20,000 cubic metres a day for six days – leads them to speculate that production could start as soon as 2018.Not all deposits are locked into permafrost or sediments deep at the bottom of the ocean. In some places, they are abundant at or near the sea floor, strewn about like snowdrifts. Unlike sedimentary hydrates – which are microscopic in size, but plentiful – these do not require drilling into the sediment. They can simply be scooped up, which makes them easier, in theory, to turn into usable fuel.
It was these hydrates that caught the attention of Shinya Nishio, a scientist at Japan's Shimizu Corporation who was working on JOGMEC's deep-drilling programme. Previous research at Lake Baikal had determined that the deposits occur in "cold seeps" where gas-saturated water seeps up from faults. What was less clear was whether they contained usable amounts of methane.So in 2008 Nishio led an expedition to find answers at the bottom of Baikal.Using a research ship borrowed from the Limnological Institute, the Russian-Japanese team began their scan of the lake's depths. At a depth of about 420 metres, they found their mother lode: big snowy chunks of snow-white hydrates. To test their methane content, the team lowered what was essentially a giant straw with a scoop attached. "We collected about 1.5 cubic metres of methane in 40 minutes," says Khlystov. "It's not much, but what surprised the Japanese was that they were seemingly not doing anything, they just turned the pumps on and the gas began to flow." No drilling required.No matter which resource they tap, it is not unrealistic to expect that Japan will have major commercial operations within the decade, says Collet. The speedy timeline is not without precedent. "Five, six years ago shale gas was also barely appreciated as a potential resource," he says. "Now it's dominating and controlling the price of gas." Domestic shale gas now accounts for more than 20 per cent of US gas production, which has changed the nation's relationship with energy-exporting countries. "That can also happen with hydrates," he says.Other countries are interested in methane hydrate. India, which is also keen to gain energy independence, has offshore gas hydrate deposits of about 1.9 trillion cubic metres, and has logged several visits to Baikal. Bandaru Ramalingeswara Rao of the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa visited the lake in 2004. "The geophysical mapping we did there helped us identify gas hydrates deposits back home in India," he says. Shortly after, he was recruited by India's state gas hydrate research project. Based in part on his findings, India decided to begin drilling subsurface sedimentary hydrates in the Bay of Bengal. South Korea and China are also pursuing methane hydrate research.
Not everyone will be inspired by Japan to develop their methane hydrate resource. Thanks to the shale gas boom, Canada, Russia and the US have scaled back their programmes. However, if even a single country successfully commercialises operations, the reverberations will change the map of world energy, says Kimball Chen, who runs the international Energy Transportation Group, which advises governments on natural gas geopolitics. "If Japan started mining gas hydrates, Russia would lose export markets for liquefied natural gas in the Far East, and then all they'll have left is China." And if China follows Japan's lead, the situation will quickly snowball. The new energy source would probably dash Australia's nascent attempts at becoming a geopolitically secure energy supplier to nations like India and China.What's more, Japan may not even need to commercialise its resources – the mere threat of energy independence could be enough to cause these global ripple effects. "Just the physical capability to mine hydrates will give Japan negotiating power," says Chen. "If the Middle Eastern nations know that Japan can mine hydrates at a certain cost, that becomes the new price."The global energy markets, ever susceptible to influences, are balanced on a knife edge. Everything could be changed by two Russian research ships floating idly on the glittering summer water of Lake Baikal, awaiting their next assignment.There are concerns that focusing on methane hydrates might divert Japan's attention away from green technologies. Likewise, India, where wind is now competitive with coal, might be lured from a greener path.. "If Japan gets its gas from a very local offshore hydrate deposit, rather than burning LNG or coal, then that's probably a plus," he says. "In India the gas will compete with coal." Because methane burns cleaner than coal, this could offset coal emissions there.Another problem that receives a lot of attention is the leaks of unburned methane in shale-gas production. But again, methane hydrate stacks up well. Such leaks will do far less harm underwater. In deep-water offshore regions, any leaked methane would be oxidised by microbes before it can reach the surface. "They love methane, and they oxidise it to gain energy," says marine geologist Klaus Wallmann of Kiel University in Germany. For example, in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, huge amounts of methane were released, but didn't make it to surface.
Perhaps methane hydrate production could even help the environment. Last year, in a trial on Alaska's North Slope, the US Department of Energy and JOGMEC, a Japanese energy company, demonstrated that it is possible to store carbon dioxide in the icy cages that normally hold methane. To make the switch, the team forced the water out of the porous methane hydrate layer. Next, they injected waste CO2, leaving it in place for several days to ensure the CO2 successfully took the place of the methane. Once that was done, the methane was pumped to the surface.The swap was accomplished in permafrost, but Wallmann believes that the same process can be applied to store CO2 in tapped offshore hydrate deposits after drilling.