In the Search for New Energy, What about Methane?

Ask anyone : methane stinks. I grew up in Jamaica and we sometimes raised a pig or two. So I was surprised when I read that Jamaican pig farmers were trapping the waste from their pens and using the methane it generated to fuel their homes. How could they cook their food with that smelly stuff?

But that just shows what I know – or don’t know. I looked it up on the web and found that methane gas is odorless. The smell that we associate with it (from rock stars setting their flatulence aflame, for example) comes from bacteria in it – not from the gas itself.

So it’s certainly not offensive to use methane for cooking – or anything else.

And now I’ve learned that Japan may be on the verge of unlocking “the world’s next major energy source.” Methane.

According to a recent article in the International Science Times:

A Japanese study estimates that there is at least 1.1 trillion cubic meters (40 trillion cubic feet) of methane hydrate, or “fire ice” in the Eastern Nankai Trough, a submarine trough off Japan’s Pacific coast, just south of the country’s main island of Honshu.

It’s hard for me to resist making bad jokes about all the methane Washington generates – you know, from political hot air. But this is no laughing matter. For reasons too numerous to list, the industrialized world cannot continue to rely on oil.

And the Third World has little hope of achieving industrial independence through oil importation. Especially now that Chavez is dead, Jamaica for one, could be in danger of losing its favorable deal for Venezuelan oil. And even if the new regime continues Venezuela’s policy of subsidizing the oil exported to the Caribbean islands, that is no long-term solution to the problem.

Of course, the islands are drenched in sunshine and swept by sea breezes but development of cheap energy from those natural sources has been frustratingly slow.

Energy is a matter of life and death. It literally makes the world go round. It’s obscene for a few grotesquely rich sheiks to control so much of the oil on which the global energy system is currently based.

I won’t even discuss the environment. If you don’t know what carbon-based fossil fuels like oil and coal do to the environment by now, you haven’t been paying attention.

Even the pragmatic Chinese realize they cannot continue to pollute the air as they do now. China’s bosses are busy trying to develop “clean energy ” while America’s politicians (mostly Republicans, of course) do their best to keep the oil and coal industry booming without regard for the poison it spews into the atmosphere.

Burning methane is not environmentally blameless. It adds carbon dioxide to the air, contributing to global warming. Still, I doubt it presents the dangers that coal and oil do. And it seems to be a lot easier (and safer?) to get at than the natural gas trapped in the earth’s rock formations. There’s no need for “fracking,” for one thing.

Anyway, this blog is about economics. not the environment. And it looks as if methane could be the economically feasible energy source that we need until we figure out how to use the sun, wind and tides efficiently enough to compete with fossil fuels.

Methane is obviously abundant and new discoveries indicate there’s a lot more where that came from.

Live Science.com reports that explorers are discovering vast amounts of methane seeping from the ocean floor off America’s east coast. Apparently, the gas is released by the same kind of “fire ice” the Japanese are finding.

And if the natural supply isn’t enough to meet the needs of an exploding global population, more methane would be easy to produce. Rotting garbage… animal waste… even rock stars … are – well – “full of it.”

Click here for the story about Jamaican pig farmers.

Click here for the International Science Times story.

Click here for the Live Science story.

Click here for methane from garbage dumps.

Click here for an explanation of methane’s “odor.”

Click here to read about Jamaica and Venezuelan oil.

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com

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