Song of Ice and Fire: China Turns Frozen Hydrate Into Gas
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2017-05-18 14:07:57

Earlier this month, Chinese researchers for the first time successfully produced gas from natural gas hydrate out at sea, a breakthrough that could unlock vast reserves of energy.

The successful test, conducted on a drilling platform in the South China Sea, was announced Thursday by the China Geological Survey, a department under the Ministry of Land and Resources.

Natural gas hydrate, also known as combustible ice, is formed from water and natural gas under conditions of high pressure and low temperature. The ice-like formations can be found beneath the ocean floor and in permafrost. Gas hydrate is a relatively clean energy alternative compared to traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

According to media reports, China’s stock of marine natural gas hydrate is estimated to be equivalent to 80 billion tons of oil — a potential energy revolution for a country that relies heavily on coal and has relatively little in the way of other gas reserves.

Since May 10, the China Geological Survey has extracted gas from natural gas hydrate deposits in the Shenhu area, some 300 kilometers from Hong Kong, and generated 120,000 cubic meters of gas with a methane concentration of 99.5 percent. It is the country’s ambition to begin commercially exploiting gas hydrate before 2030.

The success marks a world first, according to the China Geological Survey, but commercial production of the natural gas hydrate still has a long way to go, Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University in eastern China’s Fujian province, told Sixth Tone. Lin said that production costs are still high, and that an economically feasible way to exploit gas hydrate on a large scale has yet to be found.

Lin added that producing methane — a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — also poses a potential danger to the environment if the technology fails and the gas escapes.

“It’s indeed a historic breakthrough,” Lin said, “but the future is still unknown for us.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A view of the drilling platform for the exploitation of natural gas hydrate in the South China Sea, April 19, 2017. VCG)