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Is flammable ice the fuel of the future? | The World Weekly

Flammable ice buried under sheets of permafrost around the world is more than just a chemical curiosity. These ice crystals, officially known as methane hydrates, contain huge quantities of methane, making them a rich source of natural gas, and have been pegged as the world’s last great source of carbon-based fuel. A method to efficiently tap methane hydrate reserves has so far proven elusive, but China claims to have made a breakthrough this week.

Flammable ice is formed under specific conditions, in which a mix of low temperatures and high pressure causes methane to become trapped inside a solid crystal structure of water. When exposed to fire, the gas trapped within the ice will light up, making the ice appear to burn. Methane hydrates occur naturally around the world, under the ocean floor and trapped beneath permafrosts on land, but extracting the gas is tricky, since either the temperature needs to be raised or the pressure lowered in order for the methane and water to separate.

While methane hydrates have already been successfully mined elsewhere, previous efforts have been far too inefficient to be viable. China’s extraction, however, yielded a lot more gas than previous attempts. “It is not a new technology or technique,” Praveen Linga, associate professor from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore, told The World Weekly. But the process was refined, he explained: “They have innovated on the production system design to manage water and sand production in order to sustain the gas production during the tests.”

While we are still a long way from seeing commercial mining of flammable ice, these ice crystals could turn the energy industry on its head once the technique is refined. The US Department of Energy predicts that methane hydrate reserves could hold more energy than all other fossil fuels combined. This could hold huge economic significance for countries currently reliant on fuel imported from elsewhere, with Japan and India particularly invested in research.

China’s minister of Land and Resources, Jiang Daming, said the breakthrough could spark a “global energy revolution”, but many hold reservations about methane hydrate mining. Any methane gas escaping during the extraction would inflict a heavy toll on the environment. It is over 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And whereas methane is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, its use could be limited as the world seeks to free itself from a fossil fuel dependence.

Nonetheless, if the US shale boom is anything to go by, concerns over climate change might not stand in the way of another fossil fuel revolution.

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