World

China announces breakthrough in new 'ice fuel'

BEIJING: China is drilling into the ocean floor in the hope of tapping vast deposits of a frozen fossil fuel known as "combustible ice" - a mix of water and concentrated natural gas.

These gas hydrates can be burned from a frozen state and are found in the seabed as well as beneath permafrost. But experts say extracting methane from ice crystals is technologically difficult and expensive.

Energy-hungry China, one of several countries hoping to exploit the hard-to-reach resource to meet growing demand, recently announced a "historic breakthrough" in drilling tests in the South China Sea.

In six weeks, China extracted more than 235,000 cubic metres of gas hydrate off the coast of Guangdong, according to the China Geological Survey website.

"China has beaten expectations in completing the trial explorations of combustible ice using local innovations in technology and engineering," said Mr Ye Jianliang, head of the Guangzhou Marine Geology Survey.

One cubic metre of gas hydrate, which is also known as "flammable ice" because methane can ignite, releases 164 cubic metres of conventional natural gas once extracted, the US Department of Energy says.

Estimates for the size of the planet's gas hydrate deposits vary but the US says it could exceed "the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels".

Analysts say the substantial resource could be a "game changer" for countries that have limited access to conventional natural gas. Several countries are hoping to turn gas hydrate into a viable source of energy, including Japan which has reported drilling success off its Pacific coast.

The US has also obtained positive results from exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

But commercially viable production is "another 10 years" away, said Mr Paul Duerloo, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group in Tokyo. - AFP

ChinaENERGYSouth China Sea