China hails breakthrough in tapping gas from 'ice'

China has reported that gas was extracted from "flammable ice" - methane hydrate trapped in ice crystals - by the Blue Whale 1 drilling rig (above) in the South China Sea, and converted into natural gas.
China has reported that gas was extracted from "flammable ice" - methane hydrate trapped in ice crystals - by the Blue Whale 1 drilling rig (above) in the South China Sea, and converted into natural gas.PHOTO: XINHUA

BEIJING/HONG KONG • China has successfully extracted gas from an ice-like substance mined from the South China Sea, in a development that will help secure the country's energy security, said the Minister of Land and Resources.

Engineers extracted the gas from the so-called "flammable ice" - methane hydrate trapped in ice crystals - and converted it to natural gas on a floating production platform in the Shenhu area of the South China Sea, about 300km south-east of Hong Kong, said the Ministry of Land and Resources.

It is "a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution", Land and Resources Minister Jiang Daming told the Xinhua news agency. "The production of gas hydrate will play a significant role in upgrading China's energy mixture and securing its energy security."

The Chinese authorities hope to commence commercial exploitation of the resource before 2030.

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Methane hydrate is an enormous untapped energy source formed under high pressure and low temperatures in permafrost or under the sea. It is considered a clean energy option with high energy density and releases less than half the amount of carbon dioxide as oil and coal when burned, said ministry officials.

Methane hydrate is formed in such abundance that the United States Department of Energy has estimated the total amount could exceed the combined energy content of all other fossil fuels, reported the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

In China, the substance has been detected in abundance in permafrost in areas like the Qinghai- Tibet plateau, as well as under the South China and East China seas.

The US, Canada and Japan have been leading research into it, reported the SCMP. Japan said earlier this month that it had successfully produced natural gas from methane hydrate off its Pacific coast, and plans to conduct continuous production for three to four weeks.

China has been catching up fast since the discovery of promising reserves in the South China Sea in 2007, according to the SCMP. Earlier this year, scientists built the country's first land-based drilling platform on the Tibetan plateau, where abundant methane is trapped under the permafrost.

In the South China Sea operation, the gas is being extracted at a test site from a depth of 1,266m below sea level by an ultra-deep-water semi-submersible drilling rig called Blue Whale 1. The test production began on May 10, and has reached a steady output. As of Wednesday, it had yielded 113,200 cubic m of natural gas, with average daily production of just over 16,000 cubic m, the China Daily reported.

Going forward, two or three more drilling tests will be conducted in nearby regions so that more experience and data can be accumulated, ministry officials said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'China hails breakthrough in tapping gas from 'ice''. Print Edition | Subscribe