Researchers hail first for nation’s science at sea

March marked the first time Taiwanese scientists measured methane hydrate reserves onboard their own ship, the Legend (勵進), while gathering geological and atmospheric data in the South China Sea, researchers said yesterday.

The 2,629-tonne vessel on March 9 set out from Anping Port (安平港) in Tainan on its first scientific voyage and returned on April 2.

The mission was kept under wraps prior to departure to avoid unnecessary agitation given the sensitivity of the area that the vessel visited, Minister of Science and Technology Chen Liang-gee (陳良基) told a news conference in Taipei.

While Taiwanese researchers have been on US, French and German research vessels drilling for methane hydrate reserves, this was the first such mission using a Taiwanese vessel, National Taiwan University (NTU) Ocean Center chief executive officer Liu Char-shine (劉家瑄) said.

Methane hydrates, also known as “combustible ice,” are solids mainly composed of methane molecules surrounded by a cage of water molecules. The nation has been researching them for use as a source of energy for nearly two decades.

With the Legend’s computer-controlled dynamic positioning system, researchers could collect samples using remotely operated underwater vehicles, Liu said.

While government-funded explorations of methane hydrates have been suspended since the second-phase National Energy Program ended last year, researchers have expressed hope that the government would renew their funding.

Scientists interested in the area should compile data for further study, so that the Ministry of Economic Affairs can support drilling missions, Chen said.

Geological surveys found a 4,000m-high seamount in the center of an ocean basin and fragments of collapsed strata, suggesting the potential for earthquakes, National Central University professor of Earth sciences Hsu Shu-kung (許樹坤) said.

Disaster prevention work should be the key to research in the South China Sea, as the Indian Ocean basin was once considered stable before a 2004 earthquake triggered a destructive tsunami, Hsu said.

During the 25-day voyage, NTU Department of Atmospheric Sciences chair Lin Po-hsiung (林博雄) used radiosondes carried by weather balloons to gather weather data above Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) and the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島).

The data would improve weather forecasting in the area, Lin said, adding that his team also plans to operate uncrewed aerial vehicles for related missions this year.

The vessel’s missions are not limited to the same area, Chen said, encouraging researchers propose new ideas for study.

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