China plans to spend 800 million yuan (US$100 million) over the next decade on studying natural gas hydrates, an alternative fuel Beijing hopes might help to limit its growing reliance on oil imports, the government said this week.
Trial exploration of methane hydrate, a crystalline compound of water and natural gas, is expected to become viable between 2010 and 2015, the government planning agency said in a report on its Web site on Wednesday.
But the National Development and Reform Commission said that further technological breakthroughs were necessary before the fuel would be commercially developed.
Methane hydrate reserves, found in abundance in ocean beds, are thought to be equivalent in energy value to at least twice the amount of fossil fuels needed to meet global energy demand for 1,000 years, the report said.
It said the energy generated by each cubic meter of hydrate is equal to that released by up to 180 cubic meters of natural gas, it said.
Competition for such resources could add to friction between countries with conflicting claims to ocean territory, such as those already simmering between Japan, South Korea and China.
The report said that China planned to work with German researchers to sample hydrate deposits in the northern part of the South China Sea within a year.
"China so far has discovered enormous reserves of gas hydrates in offshore areas; those spotted in the northern part of the South China Sea are expected to amount to half the country's onshore oil resources," the report said.
China is the world's second biggest consumer of oil and the third largest importer, bringing in at least 3.5 million barrels of foreign oil per day last year.
Aside from hydrates, China is looking to nuclear energy, wind power, coal-to-fuel and biofuels such as methanol made from corn to help it meet soaring demand.
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