Methane hydrate– also known as ‘flammable ice’ — is not an entirely new discovery. We just haven’t figured out how to efficiently harvest it yet.
Methane hydrate is called flammable ice because it looks like ice, and it’s flammable. It’s not really ice, though. Rather, it’s methane caged inside a lattice of water molecules. And if you place a lighted match or a flame near or on it, it won’t melt like ice would; it would instead catch fire.
Methane hydrate deposits are usually found in areas with low temperature and moderate to high pressure — the conditions needed to trap methane in this particular manner. Examples of such areas are sediments at the bottom of the ocean or under permafrost on land, which is why it’s so difficult to get to.
But the potential of methane hydrate as an energy source is much too significant to be ignored, especially since the world’s combined methane hydrate deposits may be much greater than all other fossil fuel sources combined. This is why many have been attempting to pursue this energy source. And while they’re considered a latecomer in the scene — Canada, India, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have been leading in the field so far — it looks like China is now getting ahead of the pack.
As reported by the South China Morning Post, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources said they have successfully extracted the gas from methane hydrate and have converted it to natural gas in a ‘single, continuous operation’. The report says China did it via its floating production platform in the Shenhu area of the South China Sea around 300 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong, managing a daily output ranging from 10,000 cubic meters to as much as 35,000 cubic meters.
Earlier this month, Japan also reported that they were able to produce natural gas from methane hydrate off the Pacific coast, and are planning to carry out continuous production for three to four weeks. What differentiates China’s achievement is that they are using equipment and technology that isn’t for experimentation purposes, but for serious commercial ones.
China might be on their way to extracting enough of this untapped energy source to make it commercially viable, but they have to be extremely careful with how they proceed. Because even if it is ‘cleaner’ than coal, methane happens to be a potent greenhouse gas and is even more of a global warming hazard than carbon dioxide. It can be considerably harmful to our seas as well.
In a nutshell, this means that flammable ice can only be regarded as a viable alternative energy source if the gas within can be extracted safely, without letting any escape into the air or our oceans. We’ve got enough environmental problems as it is. We just can’t afford to have more.