A NEW wonder fuel dubbed “fire ice” could be buried under the Scottish coast, according to government ministers and experts.
They suspect that massive quantities of methane hydrates reserves are locked of the coast of western Shetland, and that there is possibly enough to last 300 years.
The sherbet-like substance, which consists of methane trapped in ice, has already been tipped by energy experts to be the next major energy resource.
The wonder fuel was initially thought only to exist in the outer reaches of the solar system.
But fire ice has been discovered under the permafrost in the Arctic Circle and on some seabeds.
UK Energy Minister Charles Hendry said the government believes it is “possible” that the substance is buried in Scottish waters.
He said: “The presence of methane hydrates in deep waters west of Shetland is possible, but has not been established. In the absence of any commercial technology for exploiting such resources, no estimate of reserves can be made at the present time.”
Japanese experts are already carrying out test drilling off the south east coast of Japan and commercial production could start as soon as 2016.
And global reserves of the substance could be more than the total for all other fossil fuels put together.
Professor Bahman Tohidi, director of the Centre for Gas Hydrate Research at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh said: “For methane hydrate you need water depths of more than 1,640ft.
“The only place we have those water depths is west of Shetland. We haven’t seen any hydrates yet but there could be some there.
“If there is a potential, it needs to be investigated.
“I would say there are chances of it being in UK waters, but even if there is nothing in the UK we should be developing the technology.
“It definitely will be a major industry. I always say it is far too big to be ignored – it’s like the elephant sitting outside your doorstep and we can’t ignore it. Sooner or later we will develop the technology.”
Despite fears that disrupting the seabed could release methane and accelerate climate change, scientists believe replacing the methane with oxygen could help tackle global warming.
A spokeswoman for industry body Oil and Gas UK said: “We’re not aware of anyone investigating it in the UK but the volume of methane trapped in hydrates is believed to be very large worldwide.”
Alex Kemp, renowned Aberdeen University professor of petroleum economics, said: “I haven’t heard of it being present in any significant amounts in the UK continental shelf.
“In other countries, for example New Zealand, it is regarded as having a big potential. They think they have large amounts. There is the question of what technology to use to extract it. It’s all very futuristic.”
Methane hydrate has long been regarded by oil and gas companies as a nuisance, because it can block marine drilling rigs.
The substance is formed within marine sediments where the gas is generated by chemical reactions or by microbes breaking down organic matter.
The gas then works its way up to the sea bed where sediments tend to be much cooler.
The cooling allows the methane molecules to form weak chemical bonds with the surrounding water molecules, producing solid methane hydrate.
However, such bonds also require high pressure — so methane hydrate forms only in deep water