China may be on the edge of a major energy revolution after it successfully collected samples of methane hydrate, also known as “combustible ice,” from the seafloor in the South China Sea. Despite the strained tensions over claims to waters of the South China Sea, Chinese miners managed to extract the combustible ice, which is a substance that is set to revolutionize the energy industry on a global scale.
The miners had managed to extract a daily average of 16,000 cubic meters of gas with high purity. After nearly two decades of research and exploration, China’s Minister of Land and Resources, Jiang Daming, said at a trial mining site that it was:
“A major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution.”
The mining trial was undertaken from a depth of 1,266 meters below sea level in an area of the South China Sea 177 miles (285 kilometers) southeast of Hong Kong. Engineers extracted the gas, which was trapped in ice crystals, and they converted it to natural gas in a single, continuous operation on a floating production platform, the minister added.
More on methane hydrate from The University of Texas at Austin:
However, experts have said that large-scale production remains many years away, and have cautioned that if not done properly, it could flood the atmosphere with climate-changing greenhouse gases.
Combustible ice is a natural gas hydrate that contains molecules of methane, and can essentially be found buried beneath seafloors and permafrost landscapes all over the world. It looks like ice, but when melted or depressurized, it turns into water and natural gas, and as you might suspect, it’s extremely flammable.
Technically known as methane hydrate, it can be lit on fire in its frozen state, and is believed to comprise one of the world’s most abundant fossil fuels. One cubic meter of combustible ice is equal to 164 cubic meters of natural gas.
Associate Professor Praveen Linga from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore told the BBC that:
“It looks like ice crystals, but if you zoom into a molecular level, you see the methane molecules are caged in by the water molecules.”
According to the head of the China Geological Survey Bureau, Zhong Ziran, the natural gas hydrate is believed to be the best replacement for natural gas and oil. Moreover, fire ice is more environmentally safe and in large reserves.
This, however, is not completely accurate; importantly, it comes with risks.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), one that’s at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Experts have shared their concerns, saying that any release of methane during the extraction process could increase greenhouse gas emissions, warming the climate quite dramatically.
Even though burning natural gas is cleaner than coal, it still creates carbon emissions. It also must be remembered that combustible ice is still a non-renewable fossil fuel, and we should ensure that it does not displace renewables such as solar and wind power.
Although there are technological and environmental hurdles that must be addressed before the entire industry pounces, it won’t stop the fossil fuel industry pushing the fact that flammable ice indeed burns cleaner than traditional hydrocarbons.
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