After nearly two decades of research and exploration, China has successfully mined so-called “flammable ice” in what authorities qualify as a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution.
The element, a kind of natural gas hydrate, was discovered in the area in 2007, but this is the first time the country is able to successfully extract combustible ice from the seabed, in a single, continuous operation on a floating production platform in the Shenhu area of the South China Sea, about 300km southeast of Hong Kong, state-run Xinhua news agency reports.
Methane hydrates, where molecules of methane gas are trapped in a lattice of ice crystals, exist in conditions of low temperature and high pressure. According to Xinhua’s report, one cubic metre of flammable ice is equal to 164 cubic metres of natural regular gas.
During the mining trial done at a depth of 4,153 feet, engineers extracted each day around 16,000 cubic metres of gas, with methane content of up to 99.5%, Minister of Land and Resources Jiang Daming said.
The new energy source, while revolutionary, is not exempt of risks. The release of methane into the atmosphere as permafrost melts is regarded for those who believe in climate change as one of the worst potential accelerator mechanisms for it. Methane hydrate is also hard to extract, which makes the cost of producing it high.
Test drillings have also taken place in the US, Canada and Japan, with the latter announcing earlier this month that it was successful at producing the natural gas on the pacific coast and will continue mining it for around three to four weeks.
Sources of methane hydrate are so large that the US Department of Energy has estimated the world’s total amount could exceed the combined energy content of all other fossil fuels.