Caixin
May 19, 2017 08:25 PM
ECONOMY

China Claims Major Advance in Extraction of ‘Combustible Ice’

Flames from burning methane gas shoot from a Chinese drilling platform in the South China Sea. China announced that it has extracted methane gas in a stable and consistent way from gas hydrate, also known as
Flames from burning methane gas shoot from a Chinese drilling platform in the South China Sea. China announced that it has extracted methane gas in a stable and consistent way from gas hydrate, also known as "combustible ice," for the first time. Photo: Ministry of Land and Resources

(Beijing) — China says it has extracted methane gas in a stable way from an unconventional source of fuel known as “combustible ice” — an event the government claimed is a first that could trigger a revolution in the energy world.

Chinese miners produced methane gas from what is properly called gas hydrate for eight straight days ending Thursday from a drilling platform in the South China Sea, according to the China Geological Survey (CGS).

Gas hydrate, also known as “combustible ice” or “flammable ice,” is made of water-based crystals with methane gas trapped inside, formed under high pressure and low temperatures. It is found in deep-lake sediment, under the ocean floor and in permafrost regions.

It hasn’t yet been successfully turned into fuel for commercialization.

But what China claims to have done for the first time is to extract methane gas from the gas hydrate in a “safe and controllable” manner over a relatively long period of time, the CGS said. That was a milestone because the country previously was just able to collect a small number of samples.

The test “provided technology know-how and precious experience for the commercial development and use of gas hydrate,” the department said.

“It will have important and deep impact in ensuring national energy security, promoting clean development and building the country into a maritime power,” it added.

Mining of combustible ice started in the 1960s, but China began its research in 1998, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

More than 40 countries have conducted studies or exploration into gas hydrate so far, the CGS said.

Methane hydrate was recovered in 1998 in the Mackenzie Delta region in Canada’s western Arctic, marking the first time the fuel was found in a permafrost zone, while Japan in 2013 became the first country to extract methane gas from the sea.

The South China Sea is estimated to have the equivalent of 70 billion tons of oil in gas hydrate deposits, close to the amount of China’s total onshore and offshore geological reserves of conventional and unconventional natural gas, the CGS said.

China first found gas hydrate in the South China Sea in 2007. The seas — strategically important and rich with fish and other resources — have been the source of territorial squabbling between China and other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines. In 2009, samples of combustible ice were collected in the Qilian Mountains in the nation’s northwest.

The CGS said more than 120,000 cubic meters of methane gas was extracted over the eight-day of tests in the Shenhu area, which is about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the mainland. The seabed under which the gas was extracted was about 1,266 meters beneath water. From there, the deposit was another 203 to 277 meters below.

China wants to start commercial production of combustible ice before 2030, said Li Jinfa, a deputy head of the agency in an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television.

The claimed milestone may encourage more investment and research in gas hydrate, said Lin Boqiang, dean of the China Institute for Energy Policy Studies at Xiamen University.

However, he called commercialization a very distant prospect. He pointed to high costs and difficulties in achieving stable mass production. In addition, such activity could hurt the environment and ecosystem in the seas around the drilling. He pointed out that methane burning has a huge impact on global warming.

“The recoverable reserve of gas hydrate is huge. But the problem is there are full of uncertainties in how long it will take” to realize commercial production from the current testing stage, he told Caixin.

The Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party, as well as the State Council, China’s cabinet, hailed the trial as a “landmark achievement that will significantly and profoundly facilitate the revolution of energy production and consumption.”

Worldwide, gas hydrate deposits are estimated to be 21,000 trillion cubic meters, enough for human consumption for 1,000 years, the CGS said in a separate statement.

That is more than 110 times the 186.9 cubic meters in the world’s proven total reserves of natural gas, according to figures from the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, published in June 2016.

Contact reporter Fran Wang (fangwang@caixin.com)

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