A Song of Ice and Fire
China Taps Fire Ice in South China Sea

Methane clathrates (also called methane hydrates, flammable ice, and fire ice) are gas deposits trapped in a lattice of ice that can be found along the bottom of the ocean all around the world, and over the last few years there’s been a big push to drill for these deposits to capture the natural gas trapped within. Thus far that effort has been led by Japan, which has had great need to find new sources of domestically available energy resources after its decision to shut down its nuclear power fleet following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Now, as the BBC reports, China is joining the hunt as it announced this week that it successfully extracted some of this fire ice from the South China Sea:

China describes its latest results as a breakthrough and [Associate Professor Praveen Linga from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore] agrees. “Compared with the results we have seen from Japanese research, the Chinese scientists have managed to extract much more gas in their efforts…So in that sense it is indeed a major step towards making gas extraction from methane hydrates viable.”

It’s thought that there is as much as 10 times the amount of gas in methane hydrates than in shale for instance. “And that’s by conservative estimates,” says Prof Linga.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around an energy development that might have the potential to be an order of magnitude larger than the shale boom, but those are the numbers that we’re working with. But this is a vastly more complicated endeavor than fracking shale rock, not least because it occurs offshore and at great depths. Japan made headlines with its own breakthrough more than four years ago, and since then has made only middling progress. Earlier this month Tokyo announced that it had successfully tapped methane hydrates for the second time, which, coupled with China’s own breakthrough, indicates that activity in the industry is heating up once again.

China’s entrance adds an interesting geopolitical wrinkle to the energy story, as well. We’ve been following its territorial aggression in the South China Sea for many years now, during which time we’ve seen precious little material justifications necessary for Beijing’s actions. If China can pioneer a way to successfully drill commercial quantities of methane hydrates, it will add more fuel to the fire that is the South China Sea.

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