China has recently succeeded in mining flammable ice from underneath the South China Sea, a breakthrough that could revolutionize the global energy landscape. But the key issue is that China needs to put a higher priority on mapping out efforts to facilitate commercial production of the fuel.
The flammable ice breakthrough heralds China's first success in collecting the fuel at sea after having pursued the energy source for nearly two decades, Minister of Land and Resources Jiang Daming said Thursday at a trial mining site in the Shenhu area of the South China Sea, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
The successful trial could pave the way for more energy independence for China, the world's largest energy consumer. But the country's journey toward truly tapping flammable ice has only just begun.
More than 30 countries and regions have reportedly conducted research into the fuel, also known as methane hydrate, in which gas is trapped in cages of water molecules. One cubic meter of the densely packed fuel can contain 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas, according to the Xinhua report. Japan, South Korea, India, Canada and the US are among the countries that are active in the field. Fuel-hungry Japan, in particular, has made headway with flammable ice, which is considered the ideal replacement for oil and natural gas.
That said, China's breakthrough should still be complemented by efforts to visualize not only viable but profitable extraction of flammable ice.
Despite decades of research, it has remained difficult globally to unlock the potential of flammable ice, a fossil fuel whose commercial production comes with high costs, technological barriers and the tricky challenge of extracting the methane - which would cause global warming - without any of it escaping.
A long-term national development plan should be laid out specifically for the fuel source, enabling safe and well-regulated exploration and extraction as well as envisioning commercialization.
A market-oriented regime should be put in place, either separately or included as part of the development plan, to encourage investment into flammable ice extraction and exploration by both State capital and private funds. This essentially means the creation of multi-ministerial oversight for the country to take the global lead in meeting future energy demand. If the country is really thinking about becoming an energy superpower, it should start here.