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Asia Minute: China’s Drive for “Flammable Ice” as Energy Source

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Chinese authorities are reporting a potential breakthrough in the world of energy. It relates to an energy source that comes from under the ocean, but many questions and challenges remain. HPR’s Bill Dorman has more in today’s Asia Minute.

The technical name for this potential energy source is methane hydrate. But it sounds a lot sexier to call it “flammable ice.”

It’s a gas formed at low temperatures under high pressure. It’s trapped in ice crystals and needs to be extracted under pressure—from under the ocean, and on land, from areas under permafrost.

Methane hydrate can be set on fire—leading to that nickname of “flammable ice.” It can also be converted to natural gas and burned as fuel.

Japan, Canada and the United States are among the countries also working on developing this type of energy.

China’s latest efforts are taking place aboard a floating platform in the South China Sea.

The country’s Minister of Land and Resources told the official Xinhua news agency the work is “a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution.”

Morgan Stanley was a bit more measured in its response, putting out a research note late last week saying the technology holds promise but adding that commercial production is more than three years away and probably longer.

Major production challenges remain from extraction through processing.

Perhaps an even bigger challenge: environmental concerns.

Despite all its potential, methane hydrate is a fossil fuel—releasing carbon emissions when it’s burned.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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