Flammable ice sounds like a material that Game of Thrones author George RR Martin might dream up. Indeed it seems to have other-worldly properties: ice that burns, producing water and energy as it melts.
Until the 1960s, Western scientists didn’t believe that methane hydrate could be formed in natural conditions. They maintained that only in the lab, where everything could be controlled, could they make this highly unstable substance. The Russians knew better, however, digging up a piece from the Siberian tundra to prove their Cold War enemies wrong. Then it turned out it was abundant – including in Alaska and in the permafrost layer of ocean floors.
India, Chile and Japan have all discovered reserves on their continental shelves, and China, which imports about half of its oil and gas, has located at least two seams near Hong Kong: one in the Pearl River Delta and the other 280km to the southwest of the former British colony. It has large reserves beneath the Qinghai-Tibet plateau too.
Indeed, the industry chatter is now that China is a leader in methane hydrate extraction after it collected 300,000 cubic metres of this natural gas in May and June – in what is thought to be the largest amount ever captured.
Flammable ice is produced when methane bubbles up through the seabed and gets trapped in the permafrost layer. The cold temperatures and high pressure condense the gas, meaning one cubic metre of the ice releases up to 160 cubic metres of gas.
But the substance is notoriously unstable – in Siberia huge craters have appeared as warmer temperatures have melted the permafrost and the methane explodes.
The recent Chinese extraction was carried out at the Shenhu reserve lying 1,266 metres below sea level. “Methane hydrate is considered a strategic alternative to oil and natural gas in the future,” Xinhua quoted the deputy director of the Geological Survey Li Jinfa as saying. “Not just China, but the world at large has set its eyes on it.”
The Technology Daily said a “decompression” technique was used at Shenhu, adding that the recently extracted gas was burned off and not stored because the project was still in the experimental phase.
Despite its potential as an alternative energy source, methane hydrate poses a threat to the environment. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas – 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide – and leaks could poison underwater areas.
“Flammable ice exploration could lead to geological disasters, greenhouse effects and ecological damage far more terrible than the risks posed by traditional oil and gas exploration,” the Global Times conceded.
It went on to say that because of these and other concerns “commercialisation of flammable ice in the short term is not realistic in China”.
So don’t expect this resource – with its sci-fi sounding name – to have the same dramatic impact on world energy prices as shale gas.
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