10 November 2007

Using Vinegar to Squeeze Oil from a Stone

Oil shale is an unconventional fossil fuel source that is abundant within the Green River Basin of the US. Physicist Harold Vinegar, of Royal Dutch Shell, is at the forefront of efforts to turn shale oil into usable fossil fuel products.
Vinegar is the energy industry's leading expert on the complex petroscience of transforming solid oil shale into synthetic crude - a liquid fuel that can be refined into diesel and gasoline. The breakthroughs this 58-year-old physicist has achieved could turn out to be the biggest game changer the American oil industry has seen since crude was discovered near Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1968.

If that sounds like hyperbole, then consider this: Several hundred feet below where Vinegar is strolling lies the Green River Formation, arguably the largest unconventional oil reserve on the planet. ("Unconventional oil" encompasses oil shale, Canadian tar sands, and the extra-heavy oils of Venezuela - essentially, anything that is not just pumped to the surface.)

Spanning some 17,000 square miles across parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, this underground lakebed holds at least 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That's triple the reserves of Saudi Arabia.

..."Companies just aren't discovering new Prudhoe Bays anymore," says Bear Stearns oil analyst Nicole Decker, who thinks Shell has hit on a breakthrough technology. "This could be very significant - certainly bigger, to our knowledge, than any new discoveries that might be available globally."

While the combination of shale oil and tar sands will not replace oil from unstable dictatorships such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia (Russia?), they represent a significant domestic source of fossil fuel that, along with coal, can ease the transition to a post-oil economy. Fossil fuels are dirty and increasingly expensive to extract and refine. The entire purpose of discovering and perfecting new sources of fossil fuel at this time should be to ease the societal and civilisational disruptions that are inevitable in any major transition.

Hat tip, Brian Wang at Advanced Nanotechnology

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