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DOE-Funded Project Shows Promise for Tapping Vast U.S. Oil Shale Resources

March 31, 2009 - 1:00pm

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Washington, DC - A technology as simple as an advanced heater cable may hold the secret for tapping into the nation's largest source of oil, which is contained in vast amounts of shale in the American West.

In a recently completed project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through the Office of Fossil Energy's Oil and Natural Gas Program, Composite Technology Development (CTD) Inc. successfully demonstrated the application of a ceramic-composite insulated heater cable for oil shale recovery deep underground. The Small Business Innovation Research project provided employment for 25 professionals and resulted in two patent applications related to the cable.

"With DOE's support over two phases of this project, CTD has demonstrated a way to tap into the western oil shale resources," said Dr. Victor K. Der, Acting Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy. "With two-thirds of the world's supply of oil shale in the United States, technologies such as this can go a long way toward bolstering the development of our domestic energy resources, creating jobs, and supporting energy security."

The United States holds about two thirds of the world's estimated reserves of 3.7 trillion barrels of oil shale, an amount thought to be 40 percent larger than remaining supplies of petroleum worldwide. Scientists believe that the Green River shale formation alone, in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, has as much as 1.1 trillion barrels of oil equivalent.

CTD researchers conducted 5,000 hours of continuous testing of its cable at temperatures ranging between 760 to 850 degrees Celsius. During the tests, the cable overcame many of the limitations of existing cables, which include conductor instability, moisture-induced degradation, and operating temperatures too limited to recover shale oil underground. The project was managed by DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Oil shale contains a substance called kerogen, which is the organic material from which oil is derived. Kerogen cannot be pumped from a reservoir like oil. Instead, the oil shale rock must be heated to separate the liquid. Once the liquid is collected, it can be upgraded to synthetic crude oil for shipment and refining in the nation's existing petroleum infrastructure.

CTD's successful test of its heater cable holds promise for heating the shale oil in situ, down to a depth of 5,000 feet, thus separating the kerogen without having to go through the expensive process of mining the oil shale rock. If future underground tests of the cable prove successful, operators should be able to extract a petroleum-like liquid that is fluid enough to be pumped to the surface.

Compared to large-scale mining and surface processing, in situ oil shale processes utilizing CTD's advanced cable system could cut recovery costs in half while reducing environmental impacts.

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