Combustible Ice in China as new energy source

What is Combustible Ice?  Combustible Ice is also known as Methane Gas Hydrate, or Methane Clathrate, or fire ice.  It is a clathrate compound which is formed from water molecules under high pressure and low temperatures.  These water molecules form an ice like cage that encapsulates a gas molecule, in this case, methane [1]."combustible ice"

China’s western Qinghai provincial governor Luo Huining said on March 6th 2010, that they will see increased explorations for the emerging “combustible ice” clean energy.   The Qinghai Porvince recently found in September 2009, that it is sitting on a quarter of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau reserve.  This reserve is estimated to equal at least 35 billion tones of oil which could supply energy to China for the next 90 years [2].  China plans to spend $100 million in the next 10 years on research for Methane Hydrate.

The total resources for combustible ice were estimated to be twice as large as the total coal, oil and natural gas reserves in the world [3]. But according to a study done by BP exploration, the current Methane hydrate reserve is less than the total coal and oil reserve together, but more than the natural gas reserve [6].  According to a study done by USGS, it is an estimated more than 1,300 trillion cubic feet of methane gas is off of North and South Carolina coasts in the form of Methane hydrate [4].

combustible ice resource map

So what makes this combustible so special? Approximately one cubic meter of “combustible ice” equals 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas [2]. It is considered a cleaner energy because when burned, it only puts off water and CO2. It does not have any SOx or NOx emissions.  Since the gas is held in crystalline structure, it is a lot denser than typical methane gas.  Also, methane clathrates are stable at a higher temperature (−20 vs −162 °C) than LNG, there might be some interest in converting natural gas into clathrates rather than liquefying it when transporting.

But this “emerging energy source” can come at a cost.  Right now it is not economical to extract and too expensive, about 8 times compared to the natural gas in China today (1$ per cbm compared to 0,125 $ per cbm)[3].  The extraction and mining of the combustible ice can be environmental damaging as well.  When burned, it still would be releasing CO2 into the atmosphere which is not really solving the greenhouse gas situation.  If not handled properly, when brought to the surface, the methane escapes from the “ice” and if not burned goes into the atmosphere.  This is not good because methane is much more potent as a green house gas goes than CO2 and can cause more damage than CO2.  Then again look at nuclear energy, it has environmental harmful nuclear waste, but we use it as a clean energy today.  So with more research to be done, this CombustibleIce could be used as a source of energy in the near future.









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2 responses to “Combustible Ice in China as new energy source

  1. blairj

    Interesting post. One thing I’d like to see more of is discussion on the physical stability of the clathrate structure. Once the ice starts to melt, the methane is release. So, under normal atmospheric pressure, the clathrate is only stable up to 0°C. If pressure is increased, the structures are stable at higher temperatures (that’s why it can exist at the bottom of the ocean).
    This is the main reason methane ice hasn’t caught on as a fuel. There are large problems with extraction and with stability of the clathrate. The important focus may be keeping the methane ice in the ground or under the ocean. It has been proposed that previous mass extinctions in earth’s history were caused by the sudden, massive release of methane stored in these reserves ( Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the climate could shifted very quickly as a result of the sudden destabilization of a large methane ice reserve.
    Depending on the future energy markets, however, people may start mining these methane reserves. Hopefully, they don’t mess up.

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