October 27, 2009 | 1 Comment
The Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) has announced that natural gas hydrate samples had been discovered in northwestern China’s Qinghai province, the first land-based find of this kind in China. This adds to the North American land based known locations.
The discovery was made at an altitude of 4,062 meters above sea level in Qinghai province’s Tianjun county, where some areas have perpetually frozen soil. China, the country with third largest frozen soil area has a frozen soil area of 2.15 million square kilometers with prospective natural gas hydrate reserves of 35 billion tons of oil equivalent. According to the MLR, this is the first find of this kind in low-latitude onshore areas in China, providing strong evidence that the country’s frozen soil area could have abundant natural gas hydrate reserves.
It’s that low-latitude location that helps. Being farther to the south than other locations access is enhanced and comes at lower costs.
Natural gas hydrates or methane hydrates are also called “flammable ice.” It is considered one of the earth’s major untapped energy resources. It could be an important and cleaner substitute for traditional energy sources such as oil and coal.
It is estimated that natural gas hydrate reserves in the world are almost twice the reserves of traditional natural gas, oil and coal in terms of oil-equivalent tonnage, or 50 times traditional natural gas reserves. There is a lot of the stuff up or in there. But natural gas hydrate has a long way to go before it can be developed on an industrial scale because of the need to solve geographic and environmental protection matters.
The nature of hydrate deposits is they can exist in deep-water areas or frozen-soil areas of the world due to its volatile nature. Warm them up or depressurize them and they go to the gas state and escape. Freed and lost to the atmosphere, methane really is a “green house” gas that takes a long time to degrade. The water released is hardly a concern so far.
Zhang Hongtao, the engineer general of the MLR said these kinds of obstacles means it would take China 30 years to prepare for an offshore deepwater exploration and development of natural gas hydrate, and at least 10 to 15 years to start even tentative exploration of onshore reserves in their frozen-soil zone. He cautioned that large-scale commercial exploration and development of natural gas hydrate might devastate the fragile environment and eco-balance of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
But, Wen Huaijun, a senior engineer of the Qinghai Provincial Bureau of the China National Administration of Coal Geology (CNACG), said that Qinghai’s natural gas hydrate finding has an average depth of 130 to 300 meters, providing relatively favorable conditions for exploration and development, while echoing Zhang’s environmental concerns. There is a little political push-pull underway already.
China is at a point where high altitudes in the lower latitudes could allow some research into recovery methods. While their news isn’t touching on the matter they surely must be entertaining just what experiments could be undertaken. The opportunity for other nations and companies to get involved is unknown, but it would certainly help world prices if China does share, open up or join with others to seek the best methods of hydrate recovery.
It might seem paradoxical that natural gas hydrates pose such a challenge. For the most part, the large known deposits are under deep cold water. It would take a great deal of heat to thaw them out and controlling the releases would be problematic at best and disastrous at the worst. The technology seems straight forward, and likely will turn out to be so when the interactions at depth can be forecasted, tested and known.
That makes getting on firm ground at lower latitudes and important advantage as theories, forecasts, and testing in the course of research are not going to be done on billion dollar deep water drilling rigs anytime soon.
The opportunity is there, still likely quite cold, thin air, and difficult. But the research potential and trying the new ideas possibly just got a lot cheaper.