Oil Shale = Cellulosic Ethanol

As a reader pointed out, oil shale is in the news again:

Oil shale may finally have its moment

In a nutshell, ICP works like this: Shell drills 1,800-foot wells and into them inserts heating rods that raise the temperature of the oil shale to 650 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep the oil from escaping into the ground water, the heater wells are ringed by freeze walls created by coolant piped deep into the ground; this freezes the rock and water on the perimeter of the drill site. Eventually the heat begins to transform the kerogen (the fossil fuel embedded in the shale) into oil and natural gas. After the natural gas is separated, the oil is piped to a refinery to be converted into gasoline and other products.

I have to be honest. That doesn’t sound too energy efficient to me. And after 100 years of being imminent, I will reserve my skepticism for a while longer. My guess is that the energy balance is actually going to be in the ballpark of corn ethanol, while the hype rivals that of cellulosic ethanol. And it is hyped in the same terms:

Vinegar has developed a cutting-edge technology that, according to Shell, will produce large quantities of high-quality oil without ravaging the local environment – and be profitable with prices around $30 a barrel. Now that oil is approaching $90, the odds on Shell’s speculative bet are beginning to look awfully good.

“A lot of other companies have bent their spears trying to do what we’re now doing,” Vinegar says of his 28-year quest to turn oil shale into a commercial energy source. “We’re talking about the Holy Grail.”

Holy Grails these days seem to be a dime a dozen. So, let’s think about this. Profitable at $30 a barrel. Oil prices have been over $30 for several years now. I would be fast-tracking this technology if I could make those kinds of margins. But it is probably going to be more difficult to turn oil shale into crude than it is to turn tar sands into crude. And the production of tar sands isn’t exactly like printing money, nor is it very environmentally benign.

All this cooling and heating, of course, consumes energy. Can it possibly be worth it? Yes, says Vinegar, who estimates ICP’s ratio of energy produced to energy consumed will range from 3-to-1 to 7-to-1, depending upon the scale of the project.

Water is another worry. ICP uses a lot of water, mainly to refine the oil and purify the natural gas.

It uses lot of water? Sound like corn ethanol. A projected EROEI ranging from 3/1 to 7/1 on an unproven technology? Sounds like cellulosic ethanol.

I don’t want to come across as too negative, but I have heard the oil shale is right around the corner all my life. Shell has definitely invested a lot of money into it, and they aren’t stupid. But they also invested a lot of money into GTL, and that’s not proven to be a particularly lucrative investment. I wish them luck, but I will say the same thing I say for most of these other imminent breakthroughs: You better have a Plan B.

4 thoughts on “Oil Shale = Cellulosic Ethanol”

  1. Freeze walls sound ridiculously expensive and energy-inefficient, but they enjoy squared-cubed scaling so for large projects they’re quite cheap. Freeze walls are known technology, used in mining and such.

    The energy required to heat the ground to 650F is also known. The only wild card is oil flow. Can they really extract 65-70% of inplace resource? Their tests are promising, but larger areas will involve a lot of sub-surface variability and other issues. If they can really get a million bbl of light oil per acre I have no doubt the technology will work economically and energetically. But that’s a big if.

  2. What do you mean, you better have a Plan B? This is Plan B! Shell is at least taking a serious look at some alternatives to oil (should please you no end), unlike Exxon-Mobil who seems to have concluded (based on 60s research), that there simply is no alternative to oil.

    So of the two, Shell is burning through a lot of shareholder profits. Until they get a Plan B that works…

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