Commercial development of the globe’s huge reserves of a frozen fossil fuel known as “combustible ice” has moved closer to reality after Japan and China successfully extracted the material from the sea floor off their coastlines.
Combustible ice is a frozen mixture of water and concentrated natural gas. Technically known as methane hydrate, it can be lit on fire in its frozen state and is believed to comprise one of the world’s most abundant fossil fuels.
The fuel was successfully mined by a drilling rig operating in the South China Sea. Chinese Minister of Land and Resources Jiang Daming declared the event a breakthrough moment heralding a potential “global energy revolution”.
A drilling crew in Japan reported a similar successful operation earlier offshore the Shima Peninsula.
For Japan, methane hydrate offers the chance to reduce its heavy reliance of imported fuels if it can tap into reserves off its coastline.
In China, it could serve as a cleaner substitute for coal-burning power plants and steel factories that have polluted much of the country with lung-damaging smog.
Methane hydrate has been found beneath seafloors and buried inside Arctic permafrost and beneath Antarctic ice.
Estimates of worldwide reserves range from 280 trillion cubic metres up to 2,800 trillion cubic metres.
That means methane hydrate reserves could meet global gas demands for 80 to 800 years at current consumption rates.
There are also environmental concerns. If methane hydrate leaks during the extraction process, it can increase greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel also could displace renewables such as solar and wind power.