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Has flammable ice been found?

What China is claiming is that the county has become the first in the world to extract gas from an ice-like substance, found underneath the South China Sea. If proven correct this could be an important addition to help address future global energy supply. The substance in question is a methane hydrate, which goes under the common name of “flammable ice”. This frozen formation holds vast reserves of natural gas.

Methane hydrate has been known of for several years, but up until now no one has been able to extract gas from it. The substance is a solid clathrate compound (a lattice that traps or contains molecules) in which a large amount of methane is trapped within a crystal structure of water,. This forms a solid forming a solid structure that’s similar to ice. Significant deposits of methane clathrate have been found under sediments on the ocean floors of the Earth.

Although the substance is at a low temperature hydrates are flammable. For instance, if a lighter was held close to them, the gas encapsulated in the ice would catch fire. This is why the terms “fire ice” or “flammable ice” are used.

Several countries, including the U.S., have attempted to extract gas from methane hydrate but none have attempted to do so by deploying as many resources as China. In August 2006, China began a 800 million yuan (US$100 million) project aimed at studying natural gas hydrates.

The reason for exerting so much time and money is due to the potential energy that could be released. Chemists have shown that by lowering the pressure or raising the temperature, the hydrates break down into water and methane gas. The energy supply is plentiful, for example one cubic meter of the compound releases about 160 cubic meters of gas.

According to the BBC, Chinese scientists have stated they have managed to extract considerable volumes of gas from vast methane hydrate reserves from the South China Sea. Some industry experts are uncertain about this claim; however, whether the mining feat has been achieved or not the exploitation of methane hydrate reserves continues. There are, in addition, environmental risks if vast amounts of methane was to escape, since this would have very serious consequences for global warming.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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