Is Flammable Ice the Solution to Fossil Fuel Energy Shortage?
Let’s face the facts. Fossil fuels aren’t an infinite source. They will get depleted someday and that day may not be too far away.
Research shows that the world’s crude oil resources will last us just for another 53 years. Natural gas will run out in another 54 years and coal resources are expected to get depleted in another 110 years. The cause for this is simple – we’ve begun consuming more fuel than we did in the past. In 2018, fossil fuel consumption increased by 2.3% YOY – this is more than double the consumption rate experienced in 2010.
These numbers are very alarming, especially considering the timeline during which this has happened. The fossil fuels we use today were produced between 541 million and 66 million years ago. But we discovered these fuels just 200 years ago. This means, in just a span of two centuries, we have brought the Earth’s fossil fuel reservoirs to near-depletion.
As world population continues to increase and as our industries continue to grow, our need for fossil fuels will only continue to rise. According to the 2019 Annual Energy Outlook report, the world’s economy and GDP will grow by 3.4% by the year 2040. It’s expected that the globe’s energy and fossil fuel demand will also grow by a third of what it already is during this time.
It’s essential that we set things right by looking for a long-lasting alternative to crude oil, natural gas and coal – preferably one that is also a fossil fuel.
Why another fossil fuel source? Why not renewable energy?
For a few years, the number of people championing other forms of energy – like solar or wind energy – has been growing in number. They wonder why we can’t harness these non-hydrocarbon, green energy resources to power the world.
Sure, you can choose such forms of renewable energy. But non-renewable energy like coal, oil, and natural gas offer some specific benefits that other resources don’t:
- Higher efficiency
For one, although solar energy does result in lower emissions, it isn’t as efficient as coal and natural gas. While the world’s best solar panels have a mere 23% optimum level efficiency, most are, on average, just 15%-18% efficient.
Coal on the other hand, has around 33% – 40% efficiency, and natural gas has an efficiency that’s between 50% and 60%. So if companies are looking for better fuel efficiency and utility, fossil fuels are the way to go.
Plus, fossil fuels have a very high calorific value compared to other sources of energy, making them better options.
- Much more reasonably priced
The initial costs of pipeline installation and FSP set-up aside, the actual costs of fossil fuels gets significantly lesser as the years pass. For example, its been observed that while fossil fuels cost around $1,000/kW, wind energy costs $1,200/kW, and solar energy $2,000/kW.
These are just the bottom price ranges. At their peak, wind energy and solar energy can cost around a whopping $1,700/kW and $3,700/kW respectively.
This discrepancy in costs can be attributed to the advanced technology to extract fossil fuels. Companies around the world have spent decades developing state-of-the-art technology that can not only make extraction quicker, but also cost-effective and cleaner.
If you’re wondering about hydro energy, it’s actually more cost-efficient than fossil fuels (0.85 cents per kilowatt-hour). However, it poses any uncertainties in the form of drought, depletion of reservoirs, and marine biodiversity degradation – which can pose grave risk to energy companies.
- Easier storage and transportation
The three fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – are relatively very stable, and this makes them easy to store and transport. Their storage and transportation also don’t take too specialized or complicated a technology. However, the same can’t be said of other forms of energy.
Solar energy needs liquid storage technology, which can be a very expensive arrangement for companies. Then there is nuclear energy, which is a very powerful energy source, but also extremely volatile.
- Numerous by-products
Renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind energy, and hydro power don’t offer any by-products that can be used by us. Fossil fuels on the other hand, leave behind numerous by-products after processing, and each of these can be used in various other industries.
This multi-utility nature of fossil fuels makes it an excellent energy source.
- Better subsidies
Governmental subsidies should become one of the key criteria when deciding which type of fuel to mine. Fossil fuels beat renewable sources here too.
Studies show that governmental subsidies for renewable sources of energy will reach $250 billion by 2035. However, according to research by the International Monetary Fund, fossil fuels have already received subsidies worth $5.2 trillion in 2017. Its believed the fossil fuel industry will receive more such subsidies in the future too.
These are some of the reasons why we need to look for a new fossil fuel source, especially if we must have an alternative energy reservoir to use, when coal, oil and natural gas deplete.
Luckily, it turns out that a new form of fossil fuel has been found; one which offers extensive potential.
Flammable Ice: The New Fossil Fuel that Could Save the World
“Flammable Ice,” scientifically known as “Methane Hydrate,” is the newest fossil fuel discovered in the world. It resembles ice in appearance, but when exposed to an open flame, it sets on fire and burns. The by-product of its combustion is, surprisingly, water.
Flammable ice is generally called methane hydrate because most of the fuel deposits we have discovered so far have contained only methane. However, there are other types of gas hydrates that can also be used as fuels, such as hydrates made from hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons that have a lesser number of carbon molecules.
But when it comes to mining it for energy, countries around the world are looking at methane hydrate only.
So how much methane can you find in methane hydrate?
Well, while this does depend on the environment from where the flammable ice was extracted, generally, one of methane hydrate will have between 160 and 170 of methane gas in it.
How is the Flammable Ice Formed?
Methane hydrate fuel is formed when water combines with methane.
There are two types of methane hydrate that are formed:
- Deep methane influx – This type of flammable ice is created when methane is released after bacteria in deep waters decompose organic matter that is buried miles underneath the sediment. This methane, if subject to the right conditions, changes to flammable ice. It contains 99.99% pure methane.
- In situ methane generation – This methane is formed in the Hydrate Stability Zone (HSZ), which is known for its clathrate stability. The HSZ begins at 250 meters below sea level in the Southern Hemisphere and at 530 meters below sea level in the Northern Hemisphere. The methane here is neither pure, neither is it abundant in quantity.
The temperature and pressure have to be just right for the formation of flammable ice – the water should be a temperature up to ~25ºC, and the water pressure should generally be higher than 3MPa to 5MPa (which falls around ocean depths of 250 meters to 500 meters – however, the fuel can be formed anywhere up till 4000 meters below sea level). At depths less than 250 meters, the gas lacks the pressure needed to convert to fuel. But at depths beyond 4000 meters, the gas lacks the organic bacteria necessary to convert to flammable ice (the Earth’s internal heat kills these bacteria).
When it comes to the actual molecular composition of the methane hydrate, the methane in the flammable ice is trapped by the water molecules in a cage-like bond. This gives the fuel a crystalline shape, in the form of ice. It should be noted that the process of flammable ice formation is similar to the formation of natural gas. In fact, scientists believe methane hydrate to be a form of natural gas, since methane is the primary gas that makes up the fossil fuel.
In terms of its structural stability, methane hydrate is very stable, provided its stored in the right conditions. If the pressure of the environment is 1 atm (atmospheric pressure), the flammable ice will remain stable only at a temperature lower than -80?. However, if pressure is above 23 atm, then the temperature must be exactly 0?.
These specific conditions are still under study, and energy companies are working to find sustainable ways to use methane hydrate as an energy source.
The World’s Role in Methane Hydrate Discovery
So now that we know the composition of flammable ice, let’s look at how it was found.
The very first evidence of flammable ice was discovered in Russia in the 1960s. However, at that time, countries did not have the technology to investigate their discovery.
In 2016, the Chinese Government shared exciting news that a new type of energy deposit had been found in the South China Sea. This discovery was found at the mouth of the Pearl River basin, where cold springs with flammable ice were found 1,350 meters to 1,430 meters below the sea level.
Although many countries had already found the presence of flammable ice in various parts of the world (including the Arctic, in the continental margins, under permafrost and under the Antarctic), the discovery made by the China Geological Survey was the first of its kind where the vessel actually reached the deposits.
In 2017, China became one of the first to extract methane hydrate from the South China Sea. The country has also set-up a land-based drilling platform on the Tibetan Plateau, which contains millions of cubic meters of combustible ice. To make this project a success, China is working with the US to study methane hydrate extraction techniques in the North Alaskan Slope, so it may replicate the same in its own geography.
According to project leaders at the China Geological Survey, the country is extracting about 10,000 cu.mt of methane hydrate per day, with their highest extraction at 35,000 cu.mt. This is just the start of a lucrative industry. The 350 sq.km strip of seabed is expected to hold up to 150 billion cu.mt of flammable ice. In 2019, the Russian Academy of Sciences confirmed that they will be working with China to help them mine flammable ice in the South China Sea.
Not just China, but Japan also has also been actively looking at ways to mine for methane hydrate. They found deposits in the Nankai Trough a few years ago. It’s believed that 1.1 trillion cu.mt of methane hydrate is in the Japan sea. If the country is able to harness this power, it could become energy self-sufficient in a matter of years. In addition to the Nankai Trough, Japan too is looking towards its mountain permafrost for methane hydrate deposits. Since these are on land, they are easier to extract.
While small quantities have been mined by Japan, major progress is yet to be made. The countries of USA, Canada, Russia, and India have shown specific interest in the field and have started research on extraction possibilities.
How Methane Hydrate will Revolutionize the Fossil Fuel Industry
The discovery of flammable ice marks the start of an energy revolution. Many countries believe it is the answer to our energy problems. There are certain reasons why people feel methane hydrate is the best fossil fuel resource we have today:
- It is much more eco-friendly than other fossil fuels
One of the biggest complaints against fossil fuels is the amount of carbon emissions they release. Pro-renewable energy parties ask for discontinuation of fossil fuel usage because of this. But if we are able to mine flammable ice, we may not have to forego fossil fuels after all.
Although a fossil fuel, methane hydrate is a much greener and cleaner fuel. It contains just 1/3rd of the carbon that its counterparts – oil, coal, and natural gas – contain, reducing the potential of CO2 emissions. When burnt, flammable ice produces 50% lesser emissions than coal.
- It is available in very high quantities
The issue of eco-friendliness aside, one of the primary reasons why methane hydrate is becoming a crowd favorite is the sheer number of deposits available around the world.
According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook publication, the amount of methane hydrate reserves in the world may exceed that of all three (oil, gas & coal) fuels combined! It’s also believed that flammable ice is almost 100 times plentiful compared to shale gas.
Researchers estimate that the actual quantity of methane hydrate (both under the sea and in permafrost) could be between 100,000 trillion to 300,000,000 trillion cu.ft across deposits, possessing a thickness that goes hundreds, maybe thousands of meters deep.
For countries which have no conventional fossil fuel reserves themselves (like China and Japan, for example), this is great news. Tapping into flammable ice deposits will give such nations the ability to become energy self-sufficient in a matter of years.
- It is more energy efficient
Adding to quantity and eco-friendliness is flammable ice’s massive energy efficiency that makes it worth it.
Methane hydrate has a much higher calorific value (thanks to methane gas, which has a calorific value of 50 MJ/kg-55 MJ/kg), compared than that of crude oil (42 MJ/kg-47 MJ/kg), coal (17.4 MJ/kg-25 MJ/kg), and natural gas (42 MJ/kg-55 MJ/kg).
Additionally, burning large quantities of the gas won’t have a very negative effect on the world either. When burnt, methane hydrate releases water, not toxic remnants that other fuels sometimes leave behind.
- Countries can receive government incentives to extract methane hydrate
Although no country has commercialized flammable ice extraction yet, some of them are already providing incentives to encourage the energy revolution.
Take Japan for example. According to reports by the Boston Consulting Group, the island nation is willing to pay $15 per million British thermal units (mBTU) of methane hydrate. This is far above Europe’s proposed $10 per mBTU and much ahead of the US’s proposal of a meager $4 per mBTU to $5.50 per mBTU.
This is quite lucrative for companies willing to take charge of mining the deep methane hydrate deposits. Additionally, this may be the only time when companies can seek such high payments for their efforts. According to estimates by the IEA, the world will have developed an efficient way to extract flammable ice by 2025, and each mBTU will cost between $4.70 and $8.60, depending on the location.
A Few Issues Left to Iron Out
Despite the amazing benefits and the scope that flammable ice offers in the field of fossil fuel production, there are still some challenges that need to be worked out.
For one, methane hydrates aren’t compatible with conventional extraction method because they need a specific temperature & pressure for stability. So the only way to extract them right now is the depressurization process. The flammable ice will be melted and the methane gas extracted. This methane is collected and is subject to the same underwater conditions it forms in, in the lab, reverting it to its crystalline form.
However, some scientists worry that there may be a risk of methane leaking into the ocean and increasing the threat of global warming. There is also the concern that the water (that is a remnant of flammable ice combustion) will increase the volume of water in the ocean after depressurization, leading to tsunamis.
While these are realistic threats, things are still looking promising for methane hydrate. Just ten years ago, the world experienced numerous doubts and challenges about the (then) latest discovery – shale gas. But today, we have the technology to safely mine shale and not leave behind any terrible consequences.
Similarly, countries around the world are also hopeful that, in another 10-20 years’ time, we will have enough advanced technology to overcome any problem posed by methane hydrate extraction.
Till then, flammable ice will continue to be hailed as the fossil fuel hero we all know it be.