China taps com­bustible ice for grow­ing en­ergy needs

Sub­stan­tial re­source could be game changer

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

China is drilling deep into the ocean floor in the hope of tap­ping vast de­posits of a frozen fos­sil fuel known as “com­bustible ice” but it will be years be­fore it is part of the global en­ergy mix. Gas hy­drates are found in the seabed as well as be­neath per­mafrost but ex­perts say ex­tract­ing meth­ane from the ice crys­tals is tech­no­log­i­cally chal­leng­ing and ex­pen­sive. En­er­gyguz­zling China, one of sev­eral coun­tries hop­ing to ex­ploit the hard-to-reach re­source to meet grow­ing de­mand, re­cently an­nounced a “his­toric break­through” in drilling tests in the South China Sea.In six weeks China ex­tracted more than 235,000 cu­bic me­ters of gas hy­drate off the coast of Guang­dong prov­ince, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment on the China Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey’s web­site. “China has beaten ex­pec­ta­tions in com­plet­ing the trial ex­plo­rations of com­bustible ice us­ing local in­no­va­tions in tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing,” said Ye Jian­liang, head of the Guangzhou Marine Ge­ol­ogy Sur­vey. “It marks a his­toric break­through,” he added.

One cu­bic me­ter of gas hy­drate, which is also known as “flammable ice” be­cause meth­ane can ig­nite, re­leases 164 cu­bic me­ters of con­ven­tional nat­u­ral gas once ex­tracted, the US Depart­ment of En­ergy says. Meth­ane is ex­tracted by heat­ing or re­duc­ing the pres­sure in­side the well to break down the hy­drates. Es­ti­mates for the size of the planet’s gas hy­drate de­posits vary widely but the US depart­ment says it could ex­ceed “the com­bined en­ergy con­tent of all other known fos­sil fu­els”. An­a­lysts say the sub­stan­tial re­source could be a “game changer” for coun­tries that have lim­ited ac­cess to con­ven­tional nat­u­ral gas. “The per­fect ex­am­ple is Ja­pan be­cause they don’t have much con­ven­tional gas and for them it could be an im­por­tant re­serve,” said Ingo Pecher, a se­nior lec­turer in the sci­ence fac­ulty at New Zealand’s Univer­sity of Auck­land.

Ja­pan is heav­ily re­liant on liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas im­ports, with most of the coun­try’s fleet of nu­clear re­ac­tors still off­line more than six years af­ter the 2011 tsunami dis­as­ter at Fukushima. But Pecher said: “It boils down to eco­nom­ics.” While known and pre­sumed gas hy­drate de­posits have been iden­ti­fied from New Zealand to Alaska, the chal­lenge is to find ones that are highly con­cen­trated and ac­ces­si­ble.

Huge po­ten­tial

Sev­eral coun­tries are hop­ing to turn gas hy­drate into a vi­able source of en­ergy, in­clud­ing Ja­pan which has re­ported drilling suc­cess off its Pa­cific coast. The United States, which is also look­ing into the po­ten­tial of gas hy­drate, has ob­tained pos­i­tive re­sults from ex­ploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mex­ico. But com­mer­cially vi­able pro­duc­tion is “another 10 years” away, said Paul Duer­loo, part­ner and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group in Tokyo. “We know where the re­source is, the tech­nol­ogy we need to ap­ply but the pro­duc­tion rates out of the wells are not com­mer­cially sus­tain­able at the cur­rent prices,” said Duer­loo, not­ing that shale gas, another un­con­ven­tional en­ergy source that faced sim­i­lar chal­lenges, took a long time to “take off”.

China ex­pects to start com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion of gas hy­drate “around 2030”, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Land and Re­sources. Another con­cern sur­round­ing gas hy­drate ex­trac­tion is the po­ten­tial for meth­ane-a green­house gas-to leak into the at­mos­phere and fuel global warm­ing, said Xu Yuan, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong’s ge­og­ra­phy and re­source man­age­ment depart­ment. Nev­er­the­less, gas hy­drates have “huge po­ten­tial” if the cost and tech­no­log­i­cal hur­dles can be over­come, he added.—AFP

BEI­JING: This photo shows a semi-sub­mersible drilling plat­form in the waters off Yan­tai, in China’s Shan­dong prov­ince.—AFP

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