Breakthrough may usher energy revolution
China may be on the cusp of a major energy revolution after successfully collecting samples of "combustible ice" in the South China Sea, a top official said Thursday.
"Combustible ice" is a natural gas hydrate that contains methane, and is found in tundra or seabed areas. It looks like ice, but when melted or depressurized, it turns into water and natural gas.
According to the official website of the China Geological Survey (CGS) under the Ministry of Land and Resources, China has successfully extracted methane hydrate (NGH) in the South China Sea's Shenhu sea area for eight consecutive days since May 10, proving that China is able to stably collect NGH.
It is "a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution," Minister of Land and Resources Jiang Daming told the Xinhua News Agency.
The gas is being extracted at a test site from a depth of 1,266 meters below sea level and 285 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong.
"This successful operation is groundbreaking. Other countries like the US, Canada and Japan are conducting research and operations, but China's achievement means our technology in this area is among the best," Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the Global Times.
NGH is mainly found in deep-sea sediments or permafrost areas. It consists of 80 to 99.9 percent methane and produces much less pollution than coal, oil and natural gas when it burns. "To generate the same unit of energy, natural gas emits only 60 percent of the carbon emissions of coal, and 80 percent of the emissions generated by oil," Yang Hongwei, director of the energy efficiency center at the National Development and Reform Commission, told the Global Times. But NGH is still a non-renewable fossil fuel.
Once put to use, NGH will greatly ease the pressure on China to reduce carbon emissions, Yang said.
This is China's first success in mining "combustible ice" at sea, after nearly two decades of research and exploration, Jiang said at the trial mining site in the South China Sea.
In the past week, an average of 16,000 cubic meters of NGH is extracted each day from the seabed. Experts believe that this success shows that China has mastered the mining technology necessary to extract NGH.
"Many countries along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road have a demand for combustible ice mining," Qiu Haijun, director of the trial mining commanding headquarters, told Xinhua on Thursday.
"With this advanced technology we could help resolve energy shortages and boost economic development and exchanges between the countries," Qiu added.
Commercial exploitation in 2030
There is no information about the cost of extraction, and although there are large total reserves, we also don't know how much can be commercially exploited, Yang said. The impact of large-scale NGH mining on the maritime environment is also unknown, he said.
"So this exploration in the South China Sea is just the beginning. We need at least 10 to 30 years to improve the technology and do more research before we can conduct commercial exploitation and use it to replace traditional fossil fuels," Lin said.
Li Jinfa, a deputy director of the CGS, told China Central Television that "we will do test extractions at two to three more mining locations to gain experience and lay the foundation for our goal, which is to commercially exploit it by 2030."
According to an August 2014 People's Daily report, China planned to begin to drill natural gas hydrate in its territorial waters in 2015, which would greatly push forward the exploration process of combustible ice.
The planet's abundant reserves of gas hydrate could potentially sustain mankind's current energy needs for about 1,000 years, so it is regarded as a promising alternative to more polluting types of fossil fuel like oil, coal and natural gas, according to people.com.cn. "Currently, more than 30 countries and regions have carried out research and exploration into combustible ice, and moderate progress has been made in recent years," people.com.cn reported.
In May 2012, the US and Japan announced a successful field trial of methane hydrates' production technologies on Alaska's North Slope, but extraction was not sustainable. In April 2013, the Japanese government released a draft of a five-year basic plan on ocean policy. According to the plan, Japan will develop technology for commercial production of methane gas from methane hydrates starting in 2018, Xinhua reported.