home News Flaming Ice Pellets as a Means for Energy: How to keep using “cleaner” fossil fuels

Flaming Ice Pellets as a Means for Energy: How to keep using “cleaner” fossil fuels

sarahOld man winter is the stuff that Elsa from Frozen can essentially bring forth from the depths of do not want. I mean, of course there are people who legitimately enjoy winter, however, there are just as many who believe winter is better off going about its course as quickly as possible. Yet, when we think about it, winter is incredible as it replenishes our water resources and allows furry animals to hibernate. Winter is like walking in a wonderland of snow and ice while outside, but what about the inside? We ensure our buildings are nice and toasty with heaters and electronic fireplaces, which means only one thing: an increased energy bill. Despite being expensive and draining on the production of energy conductors, energy in winter is heavily relied upon for heating as it is in the summer for cooling.

Have you ever opened your electricity bill and thought about how your air conditioning usage will wreak havoc on your unsuspecting wallet? If not, have you ever thought about how the PATH is always so incredibly warm, leaving you to wonder how Toronto is able to supply so much heating for the underground mall? Regardless of our situation in Toronto, I am (almost) certain that the cost of energy bills here will never compare to those of Japan and its citizens. The island of the rising sun is a nation devoid of fossil fuels. Having literally no source of oil, coal, or natural gas to power its thriving nation, Japan is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas, the third largest importer of coal (after China and India), fourth largest petroleum consumer, and third largest net petroleum importer. Despite Japan’s nuclear plants and renewable energy initiatives, its domestic energy supply consists of only 10% of the country’s energy use. It’s a marvel to think about all that Japan has accomplished to become a technological superpower with virtually no supply source for its means of production. Unsurprisingly, the gas bill for the country was in the billions in 2016… $28.9 billion to be exact. The once impressive nuclear power plants stand idle and are in the process of being decommissioned after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011. With dwindling fossil fuels all over the planet, Japan is feeling the pressure to secure non-renewable energy resources as countries with these resources are keeping a firm grasp on them.

With a dire image of freezing or overheating households, or a complete shutdown of the Japanese economy looming, all hope is lost for the island nation. Currently, Japanese scientists are looking into innovative ways to address energy needs through a resource I had not heard of despite my extensive studies in energy during undergrad (where did my tuition go in learning about resources?)—flammable ice. Under Japan’s territorial ocean waters lies methane-bearing gas that has frozen with water. No country has been able to tap into the icy resource that is perceived to be far superior to other fossil fuel resources as to the amount of energy contained within it. You must all be thinking, “what in the world is flammable ice? How is it different than the ice on the ground near Osgoode?” Flammable ice is a marine resource that has solidified and contains natural gas from the sea or ocean that has crystalized. If you were to ignite the pieces of ice, the gas will burn and not melt the ice. To melt the ice that traps the gas hydrate would require external energy sources, which Japan does not have. To create energy from this non-renewable source, Japan will need to use imported fossil fuels to burn it. This strategy of extracting the methane gas from ice crystals seems like a lose-lose situation for Japan when the estimated supply in their territorial waters is only worth about a decade of energy needs. Yet, there is currently a lack of proper information regarding the potential effects of using flammable ice. This leads to the question of whether scientists should continue to poke the water-y bear? The environmental risks can be significant: destabilization of the seafloor, sediment falling down upon the continental slope, aquatic landslides, high amounts of greenhouse gases being released, a megathrust earthquake being around or above 9.0, and/or a tsunami. There is no way for scientists to determine what possible disastrous scenario can play out nor can they guarantee a way to contain a problem that could arise.

Now in a world that is feeling the brunt of climate change, it begs the question, why? Why is Japan engaging in these experiments and research in order to acquire another carbon-based resource where we do not have a proper understanding of the pollutants that can be emitted from it? The Japanese argument is that “natural gas is a cleaner source of energy”. Let’s think about that: natural gas is a carbon-based energy source that emits methane, methane contributes to air pollution, air pollution results in many alterations to the atmosphere and the warming of the Earth. It boggles the mind as to the need to disrupt the ocean floor in order to hunt for something that may be devastating as a form of energy when there are multiple other energy avenues Japan can seek out. Methane is up to 84-85% more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. This gas can be found emitted from the livestock we eat (cows are notorious) and the oceans. However, supporters of extracting this novel energy source have claimed that the seawater will dissolve the methane through its aquatic bacteria munching away on it.

There are a plethora of renewable energy resources out there that Japan can utilize: tidal, geothermal, solar, wind, and hydroelectricity. As an island nation with many volcanos and hot springs, you would think Japan would follow Iceland’s example of utilizing the abundant geothermal sources for meeting its energy needs. However, this may not be the answer for Japan’s lack of energy sources due to either the cultural practice of onsens (hot spring baths) or the distribution of energy via the country’s electricity grid. To me, the culture of bathing in hot springs is a deterrent for the Japanese government in implementing research and funding into deriving energy from its geothermal sources. The sacrifice of an old cultural practice against that of securing fossil fuel resources that already seem to be attainable seems ridiculous to the Japanese government and people. However, with climate change occurring and the fact that Japan is having a harder time securing imports of fossil fuels leads to the question of cultural adaptation. Japan has done a marvelous job over the course of a short time span in becoming a global nation when it was once secluded from the world. Japan has adopted katakana—a system of writing and speech that incorporates words from other languages and has investments from all over the world in its multiple business sectors. McDonald’s and KFC are common eateries with Halloween and Christmas being some of the most popular holidays for couples and children. Western style clothes are the norm now and Starbucks has cherry blossom and cherry pie Frappuccino’s that make the mouth water. So, if Japan can adapt and accept cultural changes in lifestyle, why is it so hard to let go of onsen bathing or even just a couple of hot springs? Humanity is unique in its flexibility and ability to adapt to situations, good or bad. We have mostly become global citizens and thus engage in a number of cultural practices that were never originally a part of our own individual cultural background. Yet, can we fault a society for wanting to maintain an age old tradition by looking into other ways of acquiring energy? I would say no but sometimes change is a good thing. Simply altering the practice a little would not cause detrimental impacts for the Japanese society as a whole. Even though geothermal is the most untapped resource on the island, the options of tidal and hydro power remain. As an island nation that is currently researching how to best extract ice crystals in the seabed, the aquatic ecosystem would hardly be as disturbed with a tidal power contraption placed on the seafloor. Japan’s option for renewable energy is endless but sometimes it is hard not to follow the crowd who all have their lacklustre fossil fuel sources. I hold the faith that Japan will rebel against the popular fossil fuel crowd and seek renewable energy alternatives in its quest for energy.