Technology

Using microwaves to extract oil

 By Peter Ward

A new technology might make it possible to access 1.5 trillion barrels of oil in the U.S., and it involves microwaves…

The oil is found in the Green River formation and is contained in oil shale. The Green River formation is located in western Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming in the United States. It isn’t the most well-known oil formation, and for good reason – the oil is extremely hard to extract. Oil shale is different from shale oil, and the distinction is important. Fracking techniques do not work on oil shale, as it’s a solid organic material accumulation found in shale rocks.

The only way to get the oil is to use extremely high temperatures. Some are trying to do this by a method called strip mining – which involves crushing rock formations and then heating them up to liquefy the oil. The major problem with this technique is that it is extremely bad for the environment. It can ruin landscapes and pollute water sources.

This is where microwaves become handy. Using microwaves to extract oil might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it would be a water-free way to reach resources, and would also be waste-free, according to OilPrice. The technology is, as you might imagine, complicated. It involves microwaves much more powerful than those found in the kitchen.

The Green River formation is located in western Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming

Dr. A Kumar, a researcher writing in Microwaves and RF recently said of the possibilities: “Microwave heating can extract petroleum from tar sand or oil shale at a modest cost compared to present extraction methods. The approach decreases the viscosity of the tar sand or oil shale in the absence of oxygen and causes the trapped oil in the tar sands to flow much more quickly than current steam-solvent based processes. In order to implement this technique, however, an open-ended microwave oven is needed to heat the tar sand or oil shale inside the ground.”

The main drawback of the technology could be the cost. The estimated pumping cost per well is said to be around $9, which means the oil industry may have to wait until oil prices have returned to higher levels before microwaves are used on a large scale. Microwaves may not be the immediate future of the oil and gas industry, but it’s worth noting that fracking was once thought of as a far-off fantasy that was too expensive to implement. As a clean and water-free alternative, it can’t be dismissed out of hand.

SEE MORE: What a Robot Crustacean Means for Energy by Amanda Saint

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.