Fire ice could be an intermediate step and better alternative to traditional fossil fuels.
Despite excruciatingly strained tensions over claims to waters of the South China Sea, Chinese miners managed to extract from the sea floor a substance set to revolutionize the energy industry on a global scale: ‘combustible ice.’
China’s Minister of Land and Resources, Jiang Daming, deemed the successful mining venture “a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution.”
“It looks like ice crystals but if you zoom in to a molecular level, you see that the methane molecules are caged in by the water molecules,” Associate Professor Praveen Linga from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore told the BBC of the frozen fuel.
CNN Money notes China has sought and attempted to extract the material in the polar regions and from the sea floor for nearly twenty years.
“Officially known as methane clathrates or hydrates,” the BBC reports, “they are formed at very low temperatures and under high pressure. They can be found in sediments under the ocean floor as well as underneath permafrost on land.”
“Despite the low temperature, these hydrates are flammable. If you hold a lighter to them, the gas encapsulated in the ice will catch fire. Hence, they are also known as ‘fire ice’ or ‘flammable ice.’”
“By lowering the pressure or raising the temperature, the hydrates break down into water and methane – a lot of methane. One cubic metre of the compound releases about 160 cubic metres of gas, making it a highly energy-intensive fuel.”
Seems promising — and industry experts agree combustible ice has astonishing potential.
However, the extraction process is not only laborious, it’s exceedingly energy intensive — technological and environmental hurdles still must be addressed before the entire industry pounces.
Despite the groundbreaking announcement, China is not the first to attempt to make an industry of flammable ice — Japan has twice extracted the substance from the floor of the Pacific Ocean: once in 2013, and again last month, according to CNN Money.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, gas hydrates likely hold ‘more carbon than all the world’s other fossil fuels’ — combined.
Indeed, one cubic foot of combustible ice holds as much as 164 cubic feet of typical oil and natural gas; however, CNN Money notes,
“Experts worry about the release of methane, a superpotent greenhouse gas with 25 times as much global warming potential as carbon dioxide. And although burning natural gas is cleaner than coal, it still creates carbon emissions.”
Indeed, viable arguments could be proffered that trading one fossil fuel substance for another merits little investment or time — particularly not the degree necessary to make gas hydrates a viable industry.
Still, the fossil fuel industry touts that flammable ice indeed burns cleaner than traditional hydrocarbons — and with significant untapped natural reserves, its profitability and resultant benefits deserve further exploration.
China’s latest foray into fire ice has been hailed as the most successful yet, due to its high purity and the rate at which miners extracted that quality level.
Until the planet makes a concerted effort to abandon fossil fuels and foist funding and innovation toward renewable, truly green energy, perhaps a relatively cleaner option is warranted — if, that is, the technology can be created to extract flammable ice, while preventing any ecological and environmental catastrophes.
Image credits: U.S. Geological Survey, Public Domain; Wikimedia Commons, WuseI007.