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Is China’s plan to use a nuclear bomb detonator to release shale gas

Is China’s plan to use a nuclear bomb detonator to release shale gas thumbnail

China is planning to apply the same technology used to detonate a nuclear bomb over Hiroshima during the second world war to access its massive shale gas reserves in Sichuan province. While success would mean a giant leap forward not only for the industry but also Beijing’s energy self-sufficiency ambitions, some observers are concerned about the potential risk of widespread drilling for the fuel in a region known for its devastating earthquakes.

Despite being home to the largest reserves of shale gas on the planet – about 31.6 trillion cubic metres according to 2015 figures from the US Energy Information Administration, or twice as much as the United States and Australia combined – China is the world’s biggest importer of natural gas, with about 40 per cent of its annual requirement coming from overseas.

In 2017, it produced just 6 billion cubic metres of shale gas, or about 6 per cent of its natural gas output for the whole year.

The problem is that 80 per cent of its deposits are located more than 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) below sea level, which is far beyond the range of hydraulic fracturing, the standard method for extraction.

But all that could be about to change, after a team of nuclear weapons scientists led by Professor Zhang Yongming from the State Key Laboratory of Controlled Shock Waves at Xian Jiaotong University in Shaanxi province, released details of a new “energy rod” that has the power to plumb depths never before thought possible.

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.

Chen Jun, a professor at Southwest Petroleum University in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, is not involved with the programme but said he was eagerly awaiting the results of the trials.

“A technological breakthrough could trigger another shale gas revolution,” he said.

Shale gas is another name for methane (or natural gas) that is trapped in impermeable rock deep underground. Unlike conventional natural gas which is in permeable rocks, shale gas does not flow and so cannot be reached by simply drilling a well.

The widespread use of fracking in the United States began in 2007 and heralded a boom in energy production in the country. In the decade that followed its natural gas output rose 40 per cent, prices fell by more than two thirds and America went from importer to exporter.

One of the main reasons for the success of the so called shale gas revolution was the relative accessibility of the fuel. In many cases, including at several sites in Pennsylvania and New York state, the deposits were found just a few hundred metres below ground.

The deeper the shale beds, the higher the water pressure needed to frack the rock and release the gas. Reaching China’s reserves, at 3.5km (2.2 miles) underground, would require a water pressure of about 100 megapascals, or about the same as is found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest point on Earth.

No pump, pipe or drill shaft wall material has the strength to withstand such a crush.

No surprise then that previous efforts to tap into China’s rich gas seams by state-owned energy giants like Sinopec and CNPC, often working in partnership with US firms, failed to deliver.

Zhang hopes his alternative, developed by a team that has worked on some of the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons systems, can change all that, but he also knows the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

“The technology was born in a dust-free laboratory,” he said. “Not many people believe it can be used in a mine.

Zhang and his team have dubbed their creation an “energy concentration rod” as it is able to control the release of explosive bolts of energy into an extremely short, precisely calculated period of time so as to maximise the fracturing effect of the shock waves.

It works by passing a strong electric current along a specially coated wire coil – encased by a metal shell – that is submerged in water. When the wire vaporises it produces a cloud of plasma – the extremely hot, electrically charged matter that makes up the sun – within which is a huge amount of energy just waiting to be released.

“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,” Zhang said.

The method, known as exploding wire, enables scientists to control the energy, duration and even direction of the explosion. The same principle was used to detonate the atomic bomb code named “Little Boy” that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Despite that commonality, Zhang’s device does not create a nuclear blast, so is fundamentally different to what the United States was doing in the 1960s, when scientists there detonated a nuclear bomb underground to boost natural gas production. The former Soviet Union also used thermal nuclear weapons for mining and in dam construction.

Also, unlike a traditional detonator, which fires just once, Zhang’s energy rod has been designed to withstand hundreds of massive blasts.

After each one, the rod is hoisted back up the shaft and a jet of water is injected under high pressure into the cavity to further open up the rock. The rod is then lowered back into position and is ready to fire again.

The device can “generate shock waves repeatedly … like a machine gun”, Zhang said, adding that because the wire was encased and submerged the rod did not generate sparks, so reducing the safety risk.

While the scientist has concerns about how well his creation will work in shale rock, it has already been used to release potentially hazardous gas deposits from coal beds and is now recommended by the government as a way to improve both safety and productivity in the mining industry.

Wang Chengwen, a professor at the China University of Petroleum in Qingdao, Shandong province, said that one of the advantages of the new technology was that it was potentially more environmentally friendly than other fracking methods.

The waste water generated by traditional shale gas production contained large amounts of toxic chemicals that could contaminate rivers and underground water sources, he said.

However, it was yet to be seen if the force generated by the rod would be enough to fracture rocks at such extreme depths, he said.

Wang said that as the technology was still in its infancy, extra measures would have to be taken to ensure the safety of workers at the drilling site, while mass production would also require the construction of a huge network of underground support facilities.

“Fracturing is just part of shale gas production,” he said.

Aside from the technical challenges, Chen Qun, a professor at the school of water resources and hydropower at Sichuan University in Chengdu, said that scientists and politicians would have to consider the potentially devastating environmental damage that the new technology could cause.

While large shale gas reserves have been identified at seven sites across China, half of them are in Sichuan, a region of southwest China that is notorious for its deadly earthquake and landslides.

A magnitude 8 quake there in May 2008 left 87,000 people dead, 370,000 injured and 5 million homeless.

Chen said that while the shock waves produced by Zhang’s device would be relatively localised, if the technology was applied at multiple sites it could change the underlying geophysics of the region and put man-made infrastructure, like buildings and dams, at risk.

One of the largest shale gas deposits to be found in recent years is located near the city of Yichang, which is home to the Three Gorges Dam that spans the Yangtze River and is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity.

A study by Stanford University in 2017 linked thousands of small tremors in the southern US state of Arkansas to shale gas production, and warned they might be early indicators of much bigger quakes to come.

Shi Lei, an associate professor with the school of environment at Tsinghua University, said that while increased shale gas production would be good for China’s economy and its energy supply chain, a possible downside was that it would lead to lower fossil fuel prices and thus hamper the development of renewable energy sources.

Moreover, whatever technological breakthroughs it made on shale gas extraction, China still had some way to go if it wanted to challenge the global order, Shi said.

“The US is the world leader on energy … and China can’t change that.”

His comments will be music to the ears of US President Donald Trump who has demanded China buy more American shale gas as a way to reduce its massive trade surplus.


166 Comments on "Is China’s plan to use a nuclear bomb detonator to release shale gas"

  1. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 3:20 pm 


    Trump ain’t to put up with that..Get ready for European sanctions next..


  2. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 3:28 pm 


    Remember when you said driver less cars would take over..And now the leader of the top driverless car program at Google, says it will be decades and they won’t be able to drive in snow or rain?

    Your problem is unlike me, you predict things based on no evidence and just wishful thinking..

    Typical right wing low IQ brain..


  3. Cloggie on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 3:29 pm 

    “I have referenced over fifty mainstream articles, over a dozen peer reviewed science papers, and a handful of government studies on peak oil.”

    Show me a recent article, written by academics or oil professionals or high profile civil servants who claim the geological constrained peak fossil supply is immanent.

    You can’t.

  4. Antius on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 4:15 pm 

    “Interplanetary Aryan Super-civilization”

    That has been my ambition from the beginning. With all white nations unified into a single bloc, there will be more than enough industrial resources to pull it off.

    The prospects here on Earth will be increasingly limited in the future, unless we can start bringing in resources from the outside. The Chinese clearly understand that and so do the Indians. There is a reason why both countries are focusing their space ambitions on the moon, with plans for permanent manned residency. It is a huge material resource, located in easy reach of Earth.

    “Sustainable building. Early next year in my home town Eindhoven, 5 new homes will be printed”

    The wrong approach to housing in my opinion. The places that people value most are built by artisans and have a handmade, artistic quality. Look at the canal buildings of Amsterdam or the beautiful medieval streets of Bruges. Non of these places would be worth spit if they were 3D printed out of concrete.

  5. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 4:30 pm 

    Italy’s faltering economy will put populists’ plans to the test

    Its going to be an epic fail..Their president is an anti vaxer..And hate has never solved any problems, only created them..

  6. Cloggie on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 4:34 pm 

    The wrong approach to housing in my opinion. The places that people value most are built by artisans and have a handmade, artistic quality. Look at the canal buildings of Amsterdam or the beautiful medieval streets of Bruges. Non of these places would be worth spit if they were 3D printed out of concrete.

    Amsterdam and Bruges were the result of exceptionally wealthy times.

    You can’t repeat history, it will turn into kitsch. The Chinese love to make replicas of European highlights, somehow it is a joke, a museum.

    Printed bridge over a canal in Amsterdam, was automatically produced by a robot:

    The beautiful design is still human.

  7. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 4:39 pm 


    A Regional Oil Extraction and Consumption Model. (Dittmar 2017)

    Oil Extraction, Economic Growth, and Oil Price Dynamics (Schindler 2017)
    HSBC Peak Oil Report 2017

    A global energy assessment (Jefferson 2016)

    Projection of world fossil fuels by country (Mohr, 2015) Fuel

    Growing demand for oil will lead to shortage and high prices in 2020s

    I can’t huh?


  8. Cloggie on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 5:09 pm 

    “I can’t huh?”

    Indeed, you can’t. All you ever do is present links with “pork cycle” content.

    Again don’t trash your standard links here, without comment.

    Find me ONE credible link from for instance Bloomberg or IEA and a quote from the article, stating that peak fossil is immanent.

    You can’t.

  9. Cloggie on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 5:15 pm 

    Richard Spencer podcast with John Derbyshire:

  10. Antius on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 5:24 pm 

    “Show me a recent article, written by academics or oil professionals or high profile civil servants who claim the geological constrained peak fossil supply is immanent.
    You can’t.”

    The world is facing supply shortages by the early 2020s, due to ‘underinvestment’ in new capacity. And yet, CAPEX in the oil and gas sector is 4-5 times what it was at the turn of the century.

    Oil volumetric production is about 40% higher than it was back then; but a much greater proportion of what is produced now is low density condensate, with lower volumetric energy content. It also requires very deep and often horizontal drilling, which is capital and energy intensive.

    So in real terms, we aren’t producing much more than we were twenty years ago. But we are paying three times the price and even then, the profitability of the oil and gas sector is not what it used to be. The US shale sector, which has seen impressive growth of several million bpd since 2008, has never been profitable and would not exist at all in an economy with positive real interest rates.

    In theory, with enough cash, we could go on increasing production from lower grade resources. But there is a certain energy intensity to GDP, a hence a limit to what the average consumer can afford to pay (without going into debt). Hence, geological supply constraints may look like peak demand, or depressed demand due to a financial crisis. The real economy is a very complex system, with numerous feedback effects that make it very difficult to trace exactly what started what.

    But ultimately, the crappy economic performance of the developed world since 2000 is linked to a wicked combination of high energy prices, declining working age population and globalization, probably in exactly that order.

  11. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 6:07 pm 


    After I proved you wrong now you want to narrow the goal post.

    Show me an article from last tuesday from the WSJ saying peak oil is debunked..

    You can’t..

    I can argue straw mans too

  12. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 6:15 pm 


    Oil Discoveries Recover, But Still Far From Replacing Output

    Peak Oil & Drastic Oil Shortages Imminent, Says IEA

    There will be an oil shortage in the 2020’s, Goldman Sachs says

    Growing demand for oil will lead to shortage and high prices in 2020s

    Sleepwalking Into The Next Oil Crisis

    Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Warns of World Oil Shortages Ahead

    Saudi Aramco chief warns of looming oil shortage

    Wood Mackenzie warns of oil and gas supply crunch

    Permian Won’t Be Enough — Prepare for Supply Gap and ‘a Decade of Disorder’ -Former head of EIA

    Oil Discoveries at 70-Year Low Signal Supply Shortfall Ahead

    You had enough Clogg? Your ignorance almost unbelievable!

  13. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 6:19 pm 


    Oil Discoveries at 70-Year Low Signal Supply Shortfall Ahead

    There you go an article announcing peak oil in bloomberg..A shortfall in production from lack of discoveries = peak oil..

    Its amazing how dumb you are..I bet all dutch people are morons..

  14. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 6:21 pm 

    Oil Discoveries Recover, But Still Far From Replacing Output

    Oil discoveries which can’t replace output =peak oil

  15. I AM THE MOB on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 6:26 pm 

    Venezuela’s collapse is a window into how the Oil Age will unravel -Nafeez Ahmed

  16. Physicsnerd on Thu, 31st Jan 2019 7:21 pm 

    “The earth doesn’t have a creamy nugget center of oil. Were burning over a 1/3 of a trillion barrels of conventional every 10 years, over 1000 barrels per second. Conventional won’t be a bell curve, it will be a sharks fin (thanks to tertiary drilling), which pushes peak outward, with a fast decline. Unconventional’s won’t power our current M.O.’s. The myth of technology and renewable’s don’t work (Jevon’s paradox for ex. or study some physics). When conventional starts to decline all bets are due.”

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