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Microwaves
A Second Shale Boom Beckons

Companies are diligently working on developing techniques to tap a massive but largely undeveloped source of oil trapped in shale. Fracking isn’t the only way to extract hydrocarbons from these rock formations, and a Colorado-based company called Qmast is attempting to use microwaves to extract oil from kerogen trapped in shale. Ozy reports:

[P]roducers are experimenting with ways to [microwave] previously unextractable oil resources with microwaves, which has the potential to kick-start an even bigger energy revolution than fracking — and appease environmentalists while they’re at it…Oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips are pouring resources into developing similar extraction techniques, which can be far less water- and energy-intensive than fracking. […]

[A] single microwave-stimulated well, which would be drilled in formations on average nearly 1,000 feet thick, could pump about 800,000 barrels. Qmast plans to have its first systems deployed in the field in 2017 and start producing by the end of that year.

Kearl claims there are multiple environmental advantages to this technique. Fracking can slurp up to 10 million gallons of water per operation — not good, especially in the arid West. “We don’t need water for our process,” [Peter Kearl, co-founder and CTO of Qmast] says, “and we don’t have wastewater to dispose of afterward.” In fact, microwave extraction might produce water — one barrel of water for every three barrels of oil. In situ recovery using microwaves also avoids the massive environmental impact of mining and then processing the kerogen. What’s more, natural gas that often is flared off in conventional oil-well production could be used to power the generator that creates the microwaves.

This microwaving process is distinct from hydraulic fracturing, and the kind of oil it’s looking to extract is distinct from the kind targeted by fracking operations. Most of the crude that’s been unleashed as part of the shale boom this past decade has fallen under the category of “tight oil,” which designates petroleum deposits trapped in relatively impermeable rock that are pulled out of the ground by fracturing the layer they lie and pulling the resultant slurry out.

This new microwave technique targets kerogen, a less mature variety of oil deposits in shale rock that needs to be heated up in order to separate out the usable crude from other organic matter. The United States has massive quantities of this type of shale oil, but companies have struggled to find a way to profitably plumb it. Michael Levi has an excellent run-down of the history of this niche industry in his book The Power Surge (which is worth taking the time to read, if you haven’t already).

Qmast is hoping it can microwave the kerogen underground and pull the heated oil up afterwards. If it can successfully demonstrate an ability to pull this off profitably at a commercial scale, not only will the U.S. shale revolution receive an enormous shot in the arm, the industry will also be able to explore a new type of drilling that doesn’t produce the wastewater concerns that have so concerned environmentalists.

This specific type of drilling has a sizable history of failed attempts at fully capitalizing on our vast kerogen resources, though, so we shouldn’t bust out the party balloons just yet. Still, if there’s one thing fracking has taught us these last few years, it’s that the American oil industry has an uncanny ability to find new technological solutions to problems long thought intractable.

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  • ——————————

    Peak oil! Peak oil! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!…oh, i guess not…neverrr mind….

  • jsdozcn9

    Other countries have shale formations that are much harder to frack than the kinds we have in the US. Will microwaving make those sources extractable?

    • f1b0nacc1

      I am no expert on this, but unless I am very much mistaken, no. It will certainly make it easier to get the oil flowing in the first place, but if the geology is ‘wrong’ (i.e. not a ‘layer cake’ layout, etc.) it will still be hard to extract. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, or that it isn’t a good idea (it should be, and it is), but its primary value will be that it is easier and cheaper to put into place.

      Now one very major benefit will likely be that it should cut down on the water required for fracking, and that will help limit some of the nastier side effects, as well as make it easier for countries like China (who has major water issues) to engage in fracking.

  • Matt_Thullen

    While this is a promising development, I take issue with the statement that this method would appease environmentalists. When it comes to fossil fuels, they are unappeasable. We could conjure up barrels of sweet, light Texas crude out of thin air and they would still do their best to block any use of it.

    • Thom Burnett

      I completely agree. Greens will find (or make up) some way that this is a disaster for the environment.

      • Stanford Alum

        Indeed. I believe that the assumption that environmentalism (something that I oppose on humanitarian grounds due to its anti-growth agenda’s relentless punishment of the poor), is the same as sensitivity to the environment (something that I like to think I’m behind) is quite dangerously mistaken.

    • LarryD

      The Greens are opposed to energy, Renewables are just a cover. Some of them bitterly regret the Industrial Revolution, and would prefer to outlaw steam-power and everything that came after it. Others are just virtue-signaling, and will follow the fashion.

    • Frank Natoli

      When it comes to fossil fuels, they are unappeasable.
      Precisely. If God Almighty gave a guarantee in writing that there would be no drilling/extraction accidents, no transportation of crude accidents, no refinery spills or fires, no derailments or accidents delivering refined products to retail locations, Democrats would still say “NO”.
      November 8th, 2016 was the start of a “NO” directed at Democrats.
      January 20, 2017 is the start of “YES” for American consumers.

  • GS

    And how much energy (in microwaving it and in pumping it out) does it take vs. what it produces?

  • macrol

    Remember when big frack sycophants pronounced fracking environmentally benign ? That turned out to be BS, as many of us knew it would. We’ll wait and see about this newest silver bullet. Why should we now trust an industry that has knowingly destroyed lives and environments for 100 years ?

  • Disappeared4x

    Good to know someone is working on how to access the estimated 100 year supply of oil trapped in Colorado’s geology. If Americans only knew how much oil is in Colorado…

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