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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