Japanese researchers Hajime Kanda and Yasuhara Nakajima at Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding in Tokyo think they’ve found a solution with the aid of hydrates, solid crystals in which natural gas—composed chiefly of methane—is caged inside of water molecules.

For decades, researchers have been looking for ways to gather these crystals from their deep-ocean deposits and reap what they expect could be a natural gas harvest. Kanda and Nakajima are taking an opposite approach. Rather than extracting methane from hydrates, they want to turn methane into hydrates—essentially, transforming the colorless and odorless gas into small pellets that can be easily stored, transported, and eventually turned back into natural gas. A few months ago Mitsui, in partnership with Osaka University, opened a demonstration plant near Tokyo to promote the concept and show that it works. If the Mitsui’s process proves feasible and economical, many untapped natural gas deposits could become vital energy sources.

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