“Fire Ice”: The World’s Largest Fuel Source - and China Got There First
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Scientifically speaking, ice is a rock. When you lock methane in this rock it’s called methane hydrate...and it’s the largest fuel-source on the planet.
And China got there first!
According to the USGS Woods Hole Science Center, methane hydrates are created when ice forms a cage-lattice around a low molecular weight gas (principally methane). The ice is like a net that captures whatever gas which will fit inside. There’s still a lot of mystery regarding methane hydrate formation.
Methane hydrate formation requires large pressures and low temperatures. So it’s no surprise to learn that methane hydrates form underground in cold environments, principally in the ocean’s continental shelves, but also in the Arctic permafrost. Methane hydrates can even form in modern gas lines and plug the line! The fix is to raise temperatures or lower pressures.
The methane is usually biological in origin - the result of microbes that are eating decaying carbon matter. However, there are some methane hydrates that get their methane from the deep-processes of the Earth itself (thermogenic methane).
Methane hydrate can form in veins and even in large masses. However, methane hydrate forms primarily in the tiny pores of marine sediments, which makes it even harder to mine as a fuel source.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration states that estimated gas hydrate reserves stand at anywhere from 10,000 trillion cubic feet (TCF) to 100,000 TCF. For comparison, the U.S. EIA stated that as of 1 January 2016 there were 6,879 TCF of conventional natural gas in the world. Methane hydrate could potentially be a larger potential fuel source than all other carbon-based fuels like oil, gas, and coal combined!
Even though methane hydrate deposits are generally only a few hundred meters below the continental shelves (as opposed to oil reserves miles below ground), there have been a multitude of problems harvesting the hydrates.
But on May 18 of this year, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that China had finally succeeded in extracting methane from the hydrates. According to the report, China is extracting about 16,000 cubic meters of gas daily. The drilling area is in the South China Sea, and they are pulling the gas from a depth of 1,266 meters.
The United States has been in collaboration with the governments of Japan and India with methane hydrate recovery projects. These projects have not yet yielded China’s claimed results.
There have been worries that methane hydrates are contributing to global warming. Since methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, one might argue that using methane hydrates for fuel might be a safer way of disposing of the climate threat than letting the hydrates release methane directly into the atmosphere.
However, the USGS has concluded after a decade of research that methane hydrates are not contributing to Earth’s warmth at all. Should we let sleeping dogs lie? Can the world afford to let such an energy resource go untapped?
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.