China’s appetite for energy to fuel its massive manufacturing-based economy spans the globe, making it the world’s number one importer of natural gas. Yet China’s dreams of energy self-sufficiency have driven it not only to make a steady transition toward renewable energy such as hydroelectric, solar, and wind power, but also toward another controversial source of power.
That source? Fracking, the process of extracting gas and oil from shale rock with jets of pressurized water, sand and chemicals. Critics have blasted fracking for its huge environmental costs as well as its potential to trigger earthquakes.
But this isn’t just any fracking – it’s fracking through a new “energy rod” that operates using the same technology as advanced nuclear bombs and could set off major earthquakes in a region historically known for its devastating seismic activity, according to a new report from South China Morning Post.
China is home to the largest gas reserves on the planet, with U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates totaling 31.6 trillion cubic meters, about double that of the United States and Australia combined. Yet China is still struggling to reach its rich deposits of gas, which lie about 11,500 feet below sea level – a depth that regular hydraulic fracturing has proven unable to reach.
So now, a team of some of the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons scientists is hoping to “trigger another shale gas revolution,” similar to the wave of hydraulic fracturing the United States has experienced since 2007, which has seen the U.S. transform itself from importer to exporter.
Led by Professor Zhang Yongming from the State Key Laboratory of Controlled Shock Waves at Xian Jiaotong University, the scientists will soon test a method in Sichuan province that could lead China to achieve energy independence sooner than previously thought.
The method will allow China to unlock the methane (natural gas) trapped deep beneath sedimentary rock through specially coated wire coils encased in a metal shell that produce clouds of plasma that are then released as quick, explosive bolts of energy. The scientists are calling this their “energy concentration rod.”
According to SCMP:
“Unlike hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known, which uses highly pressurised jets of water to release gas deposits trapped in sedimentary rock, Zhang’s torpedo-shaped device uses a powerful electric current to generate concentrated, precisely controlled shock waves to achieve the same result.
He told the South China Morning Post that while the technology had yet to be applied outside the laboratory, the first field test was set to take place in Sichuan in March or April.
‘We are about to see the result of a decade’s work,’ he said.”
“The shock wave generated by the device can be as high as 200 megapascals at close range, which is expected to produce a fracture zone up to 50 metres in diameter,” Professor Zhang added.
While the device doesn’t create an actual nuclear blast, it still relies on the same “exploding wire” technology used in nuclear weaponry, such as the “Little Boy” atomic bomb used to devastate Hiroshima in 1945.
But some skeptics fear the potentially adverse effects of such widespread shale gas fracking in a region long plagued by earthquakes and landslides, such as the magnitude 8 quake in May 2008 that killed 87,000 people, injured 370,000, and displaced 5 million.
Water resources and hydropower professor Chen Qun of Sichuan University warned that the shock waves produced by the device “could change the underlying geophysics of the region and put man-made infrastructure, like buildings and dams, at risk,” according to SCMP.
The largest shale deposits are located near the Three Gorges Dam spanning the Yangtze River – the world’s largest power station.
Multiple studies have linked shale gas extraction to increased seismic activity.
Others have warned that increased shale production will only prove to hamper the development of renewable energy sources, a field in which China has been hailed as a world leader.