Can Microwave Technology Compete With Fracking?
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Written by: Irina Slav at Oilprice.com
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There’s 1.5 trillion untapped recoverable barrels of crude in the U.S. – an amount equal to the world’s total proven reserves that can pretty much turn energy independence from a political slogan into a fact of life. But there’s one not-so-little problem standing in the way.
These trillion barrels are contained in oil shale, in the Green River formation. Although it sounds confusingly identical to shale oil, it’s not, and this is why fracking does not work on it. Something else does work on oil shale, though, and that’s microwaves.
Oil shale, unlike shale oil, is not oil per se; it’s a solid organic material accumulation in shale rocks. To get the oil, you need extremely high temperatures, which are currently being achieved with the environmentally disastrous methods of strip mining – crushing the rock formation and then heating it up to liquefy the oil – and steam injection into the rock. Neither of these methods is particularly effective, which is why we haven’t been hearing much more about the Green River formation.
Microwaves, on the other hand, are capable of doing the job of the steam more effectively, more efficiently, and, what’s particularly important when it comes to oil and gas, more sparingly for the environment.
The idea of using microwaves to get to the fossil fuels hiding in shale rock is not new. In fact, it has been studied since at least 1983. The idea, as expressed by modern-day proponents such as Colorado-based Qmast, is to point a microwave beam with the power of, say, 500 regular microwave ovens to the shale formation and liquefy the crude in this particular sector. The crude then flows freely to a wellbore in the vicinity. According to Qmast’s CTO Peter Kearl, this vicinity – the space that this beam can heat up – can reach 80 feet from the wellbore.
Eighty feet is not a lot, were it not for the estimate that one single microwave-stimulated well can yield up to 800,000 barrels of crude. For now, this sounds too good to be true, and Qmast has not yet started doing trials outside the lab. It does have plans to launch trials outside the lab next year, and even has the ambition to start producing crude by the end of the year.
This will most likely be just test production—albeit potentially groundbreaking test production—rather than full-scale extraction. The very notion of microwaving to extract oil shale is mouthwatering, because it is a water-free process, and doesn’t leave behind waste—one of the main points of contention between the oil industry and environmentalists. It can also save on new-well investment by maximizing the yield from existing wells.
It is perhaps precisely for these reasons that some of these same environmentalists are adamant that microwaving must never be put to wide-scale use as a fossil fuel extraction method: because it will undermine efforts to switch to renewables, much in the same way that cheap oil did.
Leaving the anti-renewables consideration aside, there’s a much bigger problem with microwaves as a means of extracting oil, and that’s money. Microwaving a piece of shale rock 1,000 feet below ground takes quite a lot of energy. Now, this energy could come from the associated gas at the well or—why not—from renewable sources. Even so, the pumping cost per well remains about $9, which is more or less the same as the pumping cost of a conventional or a fracking well. In other words, for all its benefits, the microwave approach needs higher international oil prices to become commercially viable.
The good news is that until this happens, it can be used for other purposes, such as cleaning up clogged wells and de-blocking shale oil deposits where water prevents the crude from flowing to the wellbore. These multiple applications certainly increase the technology’s chances of success at some point in the future. It’s just unclear when exactly we will get to this point.