At the bottom of the Eastern Nankai Trough in the Pacific Ocean, Japanese researchers have discovered something -- and no, it's not Godzilla. The MH21 Research Consortium, a public-private group, is leading aproject that is conducting drilling and production tests in the Nankai Trough, a submarine trough located south of the island of Honshu. Their goal -- develop the drilling and production techniques needed to unlock methane hydrates off the sea floor. Sometimes called the ice that burns, methane hydrates are naturally occurring methane molecules locked in ice crystals because of the extreme pressure and temperatures found at the bottom of the sea. The hydrates are found in every ocean and below the Arctic tundra. For the Japanese, the push to unlock the secrets of gathering this potential energy source is tremendous -- the chance to cut its dependence on foreign sources of natural gas. One Japanese research scientist at the recently held Offshore Technology Conference 2008 in Houston, said that some very conservative estimates indicate that the reserves of methane hydrate off the coast of his home nation equal a 100-year supply of natural gas for Japan. The Japan National Oil Corporation began research work on methane hydrates in 1995. Research isn't just going on in the deep waters of the Pacific, though. A joint Canadian-Japanese team has had successful results in experimental production of methane gas by injecting hot water into a borehole in the Mackenzie Delta in the arctic region of Canada. Located about 80 miles north of the community of Inuvik, the test drilling has been completed and researchers said natural gas is flowing freely -- but not commercially. The MH21 Research Consortium has said it is dedicated to having commercial-scale operations by 2016. The Chinese government in its bid to secure more energy sources has said it will spend about $100 million over the next decade for research into the development of methane hydrates. The two Asian countries are joined by South Korea, India and Taiwan who all have aggressive research projects under way. The US Department of Energy is also in the running, but on a more modest scale. The US has a research project in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to the efforts of the Gulf of Mexico Hydrates Joint Industry Project -- which is a group of government agencies working with energy and service companies. The project began collecting information in 2001 and then started testing core samples in 2005. The third phase consists of drilling projects in Alaminos Canyon, Green Canyon and Walker Ridge with three drilling projects scheduled to start in June. By comparison, the Japanese project consists of dozens of wells with a budget of more than $100 million, easily matching the amount of money the Chinese are expected to spend. "We would like to visit eight or nine [drilling sites]," said Roy Boswell with the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory. Speaking at OTC 2008, Boswell added that "our budget won't allow" more than the three wells. The Gulf of Mexico project, Boswell said, is simply aimed at trying to determine the scope of the methane hydrates in the Gulf. John A. Sullivan, News Editor, Oil and Gas Investor, www.OilandGasInvestor.com, jsullivan@hartenergy.com