Technology Review – The discovery of vast amounts of shale gas in the United States has already had a big impact on the country’s energy use—prompting a shift away from coal and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, China has even more shale gas. But it will be difficult for China to access these resources, which are bound up in shale rock, without significant advances in extraction technologies—including the use of powerful computer simulations of the physical properties of shale deposits.
China has set itself an ambitious goal of obtaining 60 billion cubic meters of shale gas by 2020, enough to produce about 6 percent of all of its energy, up from almost none today. But China faces a number of challenges in developing these resources. Most of the gas is found in arid areas, and the current approach for freeing the gas—hydraulic fracturing—requires a lot of water. What’s more, the geology is different in China than in the United States, which could make hydraulic fracturing more difficult.
New fracking techniques could help. For example, ways to reduce water consumption are being developed in the United States, where some of the shale gas is in dry areas, such as parts of Texas. New water treatment methods are making it possible to recycle more water. In the future, extremely fine particles that flow “like ball bearings” might replace much of the water used now, says Franz-Josef Ulm, a civil and environmental engineering professor at MIT. The particles could be pumped into a shale deposit under pressure to fracture the shale, along with just a small amount of liquid.
China lacks a pipeline infrastructure to carry natural gas from western China, where most shale gas is, to the population centers in the east to be burned in power plants instead of coal. Instead it’s likely to be used first for chemical production. Friedmann estimates that even so, emissions from coal consumption are likely to be reduced by 100 to 150 million tons a year, since coal is now used to produce some chemicals in China