It’s always interesting when a global industrial giant like China’s Shanghai Electric Group offers a glimpse into its energy technology plan-in-progress – even more so when things like “combustible ice” make the list of businesses it will be entering in the coming 15 years.
“The company will track the development of technology with a leading period of 10 years and above − for instance, combustible ice, shale gas, thorium-based molten salt reactor and ocean current power generation,” Shanghai Electric’s chairman and CEO revealed this week.
So what is combustible ice? And does it really rank alongside ocean power and shale gas as a viable and “cleaner” future energy source?
Ever since November 2009, when China first collected samples of combustible ice from large reserves it discovered in permanent tundra in the south margin of the country’s northwestern Qilian Mountains, momentum has been building to tap it as an abundant source of “clean energy.”
A natural gas hydrate, combustible ice is mainly found in deep seas (China successfully excavated combustible ice from below the floor of the South China Sea in May 2007, and ) and on plateaus. As Inhabitat explained back in 2010, it is essentially frozen methane and water, and “can literally be lit on fire bringing a whole new meaning to fire and ice.”
As well as being somewhat sensational, it’s also one of the newest sources of energy to be discovered, and has what looks like enormous potential: approximately one cubic meter of “combustible ice” is said to equal 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas.
And while more than 100 countries around the world had found deposits as at early 2010, the reserves found in China are believed to be equivalent to at least 35 billion tonnes of oil – enough to supply China with 90 years worth of energy.
Of additional interest has been the fact that the “ice” is considered to contain a low proportion of impurities, and so would generate less pollutants when burned.
So it’s not surprising that countries like China – and some of its biggest companies – are keen to exploit it. In 2010, the government of China’s western Qinghai Province revealed plans to allow large energy companies and researchers to tap the new energy source “while minimizing environmental threats.”
So what’s stopping them? Two years ago, speaking on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, Provincial Governor Luo Huining pinpointed the key problem with combustible ice as that old cleantech chestnut, “we still do not have the correct technologies.”
Researchers are yet to find excavation techniques that would avoid damaging the increasingly fragile ecological system, with scientists warning that mining the “ice” could cause geological disasters, like slumping, while the release of large amounts of methane gas could further aggravate global warming.
But, as Discovery News has pointed out, “some methane isn’t waiting around to be extracted. University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Katey Walter Anthony studies how thawing permafrost is causing increased methane emissions. She’s known for illustrating it by igniting a fireball.”
But despite the inflammatory videos and images, US DoE R&D manager Ray Boswell says combustible ice is “not particularly volatile.” In the above 2010 news story by Discovery News, Boswell said that extraction would mean pulling it across a phase boundary by melting the solid substance into its water and methane gas components underground. And he said that this process could likely be done with existing technology.
Obviously, Shanghai Electric is fairly confident researchers will it nut out – after all, they’ve put combustible ice energy generation in the same basket as ocean energy generation. On the latter front, the self-proclaimed “largest fossil-fired power equipment supplier in the world” made news in Australia last month for its “strategic alliance” with Sydney-based tidal energy company BioPower Systems and its pilot project near Port Fairy, on Victoria’s south-west coast.
The SMH reported that the two companies would collaborate on technical issues, with Shanghai Electric potentially building large components of the power units if the technology was shown to be commercially viable.