Move over, fracking

Looks like the oil-party isn’t over just yet.

Short version: a new method to extract “unconventional oil” in oil shale and similar formations using microwaves to heat it is being explored. It uses much less water, and will be usable in places where fracking might not be for various reasons. To put it in perspective:

If producers can find a way to microwave oil shales in the Green River Formation, which sprawls across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, the nation’s recoverable reserves could soar andenergy independence could become more than an election slogan. Even with existing methods — strip-mining the shale and then cooking it, or injecting steam to cook the rock underground (hydraulic fracturing is useless here) — the formation contains enough oil to last the U.S. 165 years at current rates of consumption. Microwave extraction could goose those numbers even higher. After all, there are more than 4 trillion (with a “t”) barrels of oil in the Green River Formation.

Yeah. Looks like we might manage to muddle through on that whole energy thing. Especially considering we might soon have nuclear frikkin’ batteries.


17 thoughts on “Move over, fracking

  1. I suppose this would work with tar sands also? As I recall, the standard processes for recovering that oil are rather energy intensive, not to the point that the process doesn’t have positive efficiency but enough to be annoying. I once saw a suggestion that it would make sense to install a nuclear power plant in Ft McMurray to produce heat for tar sand extraction… Imagine that for messing with greenie’s minds…

    • Not sure precisely what sort of resources it could be used with. The article makes a distinction between “oil shale” and “shale oil,” and I’m sure that “tar sand” isn’t either of those, but where/when/how exactly this process can be used effectively remains to be seen as it gets further developed. Using the normally “waste” natural gas to power the generators seems like a great idea, as we already have a surplus of that and nukes (as currently implemented) are problematic. OTOH, Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt just got named as Trumps pick for the EPA; he’s made a name for himself by suing the EPA. 🙂 So maybe we’ll finally see some movement on that front, too.

  2. I wonder if this would circumvent the NY fracking ban (and how long it will take them to ban this too)?

    I seem to remember hearing about Raytheon having some patents for a similar sounding technology about a decade ago, I wonder if there is a connection.

      • A lot of technologies take a while to mature to the point of being useful or anywhere close to economic. Or perhaps they are dependent on some other not-quite-yet available tech. I’d seen something about it a while back, too, but it was more of a “theoretical here’s something that might work” article rather than a tech licensing agreement. Hadn’t heard much since, though I remember a fracking diagram that included microwave heaters from just a year or three back. It’s likely just an evolutionary step and tech synergy than a totally new breakthrough.

  3. The microwaving of non-extractable, oil shales deep in bore holes will no doubt be called “nuking” as a shorthand by those involved, just like everyone else does with the office break room microwave that “nukes” popcorn or a lunch burrito.

    I, for one. look forward to the first anti-nuke protest directed against the deadly magnetrons in use deep below the surface of the earth. “Save the Graboids” posters will no doubt be involved.

    • Snerk! Graboids! I like that; one of my favorite campy movies. Yeah, you are likely right. Ignorance and enthusiasm do tend to go hand in hand on the left.

      Random thought – has the left got anything about the real world correct where their policies were actually net beneficial to ordinary people?

      • No, to such an extent that I’m willing to make a bold prediction. Whomever gives up on the failed “Fossil fuels” model of oil and gas, and actually figures out the geologic processes by which the earth makes oil and gas on an ongoing basis, will be able to afford a bigger yacht than Paul Allen.

        • While I’ve heard of abiogenesis for a while, I’ve never heard any proposed mechanism. Decayed dinosaurs or some-such is the leading “contender” but that has issues too. Coal, because of all the plant fossils in it, seems easier to explain. If this process can free up most of the carbon in the kerogen mother rock, it’ll be HUGE. There is something ike a thousand times as much kerogen in the work as coal, and something on the order to 10,000 times as much kerogen as oil (about the same for gas). If we can free that up, we’ll have great chance at re-stocking the CO2 levels in the atmosphere so we can green the deserts.

  4. Re; atomic batteries. Since they never tell you, or give you any hints, about the capacity or delivery rates, or the potential capacity or delivery rates, then it’s a hoax. Those would be the first things to address, and they don’t touch on it. This is nothing but a way to fool the idiots, especially the idiots in government, into giving them money. Cold fusion is a great way to extract energy in the form of money from the public trough also. It is still just as viable today as it was in the 1990s.

    And while we’re at it let’s build a fucking solar energy station in fucking space and beam it back to the surface via fucking microwaves. Hell, beam the fucking microwaves into the ground to extract oil. No doubt you could convince a few hundred fucking moron congressmen to give you a trillion of the tax payers’ dollars for that. All you need are the right props, the right style of white lab coats, and few paid-off university professors to shill for you.

    • According to :
      The actual amount of carbon-14 in each battery has yet to be decided but one battery, containing 1g of carbon-14, would deliver 15 Joules per day. This is less than an AA battery. Standard alkaline AA batteries are designed for short timeframe discharge: one battery weighing about 20g has an energy storage rating of 700J/g. If operated continuously, this would run out in 24 hours.

      So a fair bit less than a AA battery for a one gram diamond battery. But if you stacked up ~934 of them the right way it would deliver about the same power, weight about 46 times as much, and last nearly two million times as long before getting down to half-power. It would deliver ~.16 Watts if I did the math right. Great for a watch battery. So one metric ton turned into a battery bank ~ 173 Watts or so. Not great for all applications, but outstanding for others that need low power but long life; deep space or difficult access applications leap to mind. Not suitable for high-performance under the influence of gravity applications.

      And it’s not like we really have any other great uses for some of that nuclear waste laying around.

    • I didn’t think that Cold Fusion had been used to extract money in quite a while. Hot fusion is quite another story; it’s been doing so for decades without becoming plausible. In fact, there are some good articles out there explaining why it can’t be, having to do with radioactive waste (of which fusion produces vast quantities) and the cost of an actual generating plant (100x or so compared to a fission plant).
      Then again, there’s the interesting work done by Robert Bussard, which apparently is not getting much attention. Perhaps because it isn’t suitable for large never-finishing taxpayer funded boondoggles.

  5. What ever happened to OTEC? Back in the 1970s or ’80s, before cold fusion, OTEC (Oceanic Thermal Energy Conversion) was going to be our energy salvation, and maybe even put an end to hurricanes too. I bet some clever huckster could convince enough idiots to go alone with that now. Since not a soul in Congress has ever heard of it, it’d be just like something brand new and super clever.

    Basically, whatever gigantic public works boondoggle projects you can come up with (to save private industry of course), it HAS TO BE a great idea simply by the fact that it is a huge public works project, right? Isn’t that what really matters here? Public works?

    Otherwise some energy company would just fucking do it and then tell us how well it worked afterwards, once they’re selling us the copious energy already. If they’re talking about it up front, divulging what would otherwise be their great trade secrets and business plans, it’s because it’s essentially unviable and they just want your money taken and given to them via the coercive system.

  6. OTEC died because Engineering is Hard, and Mother Nature is a BITCH…

    Trying to leverage 10s of degrees of delta T means you start with very low Carnot efficiency, so not much output to pay for the project.

    To get the cold water you need to run a large pipe (for low flow losses) down hundreds of feet in the ocean, so it will be heavy and hard to stabilize against tides, currents, and storm surge. Now add in working in a pretty hostile environment materiel-wise and you need expensive materials like Monel to fabricate the sea water system.

    Once you have everything built and running *now* you have the joy of keeping all the floating ocean critters looking for a home from clogging up your heat exchangers (warm, warm, warm)…

    A long list of elemental problems is what killed OTEC.

  7. As for “nuclear batteries,” they have been around for decades. The USSR used them to run lighthouses. Warm nuclear waste, low-efficiency heat-to-electricity converters, a nice shielding container with output terminals and there you go. Runs and runs and runs. Large, heavy, warm. And each and every one of them is a fine supply of raw materials for a “dirty” bomb, which is why you will never, ever have a bank of them in your basement.

  8. Paul Koning:
    “fusion produces vast quantities (of waste)”

    Uh? I confused. We’ve been told lo, these many years, fusion is clean. Clarification, please?

    Of course, fission was gonna be so cheap that electricity was gonna be free and we know how well that turned out, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if fusion is dirty.

    • Yes, we’ve been told that fusion is clean. Not even close to true. The problem is that the only fusion reaction that’s plausible in thermal fusion reactors is D-T fusion. That produces 4He and a high energy neutron. The reactor is wrapped in lithium to attempt to capture those neutrons and produce tritium. But a fraction will hit other parts instead, like the reactor structure, causing (a) a whole lot of radiation damage and (b) the production of radioactive waste.
      You can see the full story here:

      By the way, one interesting aspect of Robert Bussard’s electrostatic confinement technique, if it can be made to work at scale (which seems plausible) is that it can be used for other reactions that don’t have the problems of D-T fusion. A particularly interesting one is 11B-H fusion, which produces only 3 4He nuclei at fairly consistent energy, which means they can be collected by charged collector grids to produce electricity directly (no Carnot engines needed).

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