China makes ‘flammable ice’ breakthrough in South China Sea

China makes ‘flammable ice’ breakthrough in South China Sea, by Alec Macfarlane.

The fuel-hungry country has been pursuing the energy source, located at the bottom of oceans and in polar regions, for nearly two decades. China’s minister of land and resources, Jiang Daming, said Thursday that the successful collection of the frozen fuel was “a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution,” according to state media.

Experts agree that flammable ice could be a game changer for the energy industry, similar to the U.S. shale boom. But they caution that big barriers — both technological and environmental — need to be cleared to build an industry around the frozen fuel, which is also known as gas hydrate.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer, isn’t the first country to make headway with flammable ice. Japan drilled into it in the Pacific and extracted gas in 2013 — and then did so again earlier this month. The U.S. government has its own long-running research program into the fuel.

The world’s resources of flammable ice — in which gas is stored in cages of water molecules — are vast. Gas hydrates are estimated to hold more carbon than all the world’s other fossil fuels combined, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

And it’s densely packed: one cubic foot of flammable ice holds 164 cubic feet of regular natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Motive Behind Takeover of South China Sea, by Tim Maverick.

Where will China get enough energy to power its huge nation in the decades ahead?

One possible answer is the methane hydrate deposite at the bottom of the South China Sea. Methane hydrates are a form of crystalline ice that has methane (natural gas) trapped inside. In effect, it is burnable ice.

Just last year, China discovered a high-purity methane hydrate in the northern part of the sea, offshore from the Guangdong Province. The high-end estimate for that reserve is that it contains the equivalent of 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas.

That’s roughly equal to 50 years of China’s entire usage of oil equivalents!

Chinese experts believe the South China Sea as a whole contains methane hydrate reserves equal to 68 billion metric tons of oil. That figure amounts to 130 years worth of the country’s energy consumption. …

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, said to be 30 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. …

The International Energy Agency says that methane hydrate won’t be commercially viable until at least 2030.