Energy on the rocks: is combustible ice in our future?

A provincial governor hopes to find China's energy solutions in Qinghai's combustible ice reserves. Though the 'frozen natural gas' is there. The technology is not.

Ice can burn. Not only your skin as dry ice does, but actually burn.

Combustible ice, or natural gas hydrate, contains methane within its frozen lattice structure. When melted or depressurized, the ice turns to—you guessed it—water and natural gas.

A cubic meter of combustible ice is roughly equivalent to 164 cubic meters of natural gas.

But how much of this energy source is lying beneath the Earth's permafrost and seafloors is unknown and often debated. Past Department of Energy (DOE) estimates have placed the worldwide methane hydrate total as high as 400 million trillion cubic feet. That's right, I wrote 'million trillion.'

Chinese researchers found some of it in September on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. During a National People's Congress session last weekend, Quinghai's Governor Luo Huining announced there will be increased exploration in his province for what might be an emerging energy source.

A Xinhua article reports:

'Combustible ice' reserves on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau are estimated to equal at least 35 billion tonnes of oil, which could supply energy to China for 90 years.

But China shouldn't get too excited. The technology is lagging.

The United States has also been researching methane hydrate deposits in Alaska's North Slope and in the Gulf of Mexico. The DOE has identified stumbling blocks including finding where exactly the ice is, how much there is, and how to safely get it. Digging up the ice is not the plan. They would melt the ice underground first, and then extract the gas.

There are also ecological concerns such as habitat destruction, seabed drilling and methane (a potent greenhouse gas) leakage.

From a National Academy of Sciences report published in January:

Critical questions remain in several areas, including the most appropriate production technologies, inadequate understanding of the environmental consequences, and the expected volumes of recoverable methane resulting from production of methane from methane hydrate.

Natural seepage of methane from methane hydrate has always occurred, but understanding the impacts of methane on the global environment and natural methane leakage from methane hydrate reservoirs is an enormous scientific challenge.

Want to see how potent methane-filled permafrost is? Here's an incredible video of researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks lighting ice on fire:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com