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Experimental and Environmental Study of In-Situ Oil Shale Retorting: Justin E. Birdwell
Project Title: Experimental and Environmental Study of In-Situ Oil Shale Retorting
Mendenhall Fellow: Justin E. Birdwell, (303) 236-1534,  
Duty Station: Denver, CO
Start Date: October 1, 2009
Education: Ph.D. (Chemical Engineering), Louisiana State University, 2007
Research Advisors: Michael Lewan, (303) 236-9391,; Ronald Johnson, (303) 236-5546,

Project Description: The development of the oil shale resource in the western United States has long been viewed as a potential alternative to importing foreign crude oil to meet the nation’s liquid fuel needs but has been hindered by the difficulty in extracting and processing the material and concerns over the environmental impact that would result from establishment of a large scale (greater than106 bbl per day) oil shale industry. Currently, several major oil companies are developing technologies to make use of the rich oil shales in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in ways that will overcome the technical challenges of accessing the resource while attempting to minimize the environmental footprint of their operations. The technologies under development involve in-situ retorting, which is a method of extracting hydrocarbons from oil shale without having to mine the rock first. Such approaches may mitigate many of the problems that have hampered oil shale development. It is the goal of this research to develop laboratory protocols to assess the petroleum and environmental geochemistry of these in-situ processes in order to better understand the oil generation potential and environmental implications these technologies represent.

Background: Generation of shale oil requires heating kerogen-rich rocks (oil shale) to high temperatures (360°–500°C), making it an energy intensive process, and the generated oil generally requires significant upgrading to make it compatible with existing oil processing infrastructure. Accessing much of the oil shale in the western United States would require a mining effort of extraordinary scale, adding substantially to the energy investment and cost of development, to say nothing of the effect on the landscape. Beyond the technical and economic issues, shale oil extraction is generally a water intensive process, and an oil shale industry would put additional strain on a region with longstanding problems involving water availability and possibly lead to reduced water quality in areas surrounding shale oil production facilities. There is also concern that due to the energy intensive nature of shale oil extraction and the relatively low quality of shale oil as a fuel resource (relative to traditional crude oils) its use as a replacement liquid hydrocarbon fuel would lead to increased emissions of greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution.

In-situ retorting technologies currently under development for use in the Piceance Basin and elsewhere use a lower operating temperature (350°–400°C) than surface retorts (greater than 500°C). While operating at lower temperatures reduces the total hydrocarbon yield of in-situ processes, the slower heating rates employed in underground retorts make the in-situ processes more efficient than rapidly heated, high temperature surface retorts so less energy is required. It has also been shown that a better quality oil, one containing more hydrocarbons that can be used for products of growing economic importance like diesel and jet fuels, can be generated under in-situ conditions than in those commonly used for surface processing.

Oil shale outcrop in western Colorado (Piceance Basin)
Oil shale outcrop in western Colorado (Piceance Basin)



Research Objectives: The primary goal of this research is to develop a set of protocols for simulating in-situ oil shale retorting conditions in the laboratory. This will then allow for assessment of the product yield and quality that can be obtained from a particular oil shale under in-situ conditions. In order to better understand the geochemistry of the oil generating process, the starting material being used for this research (Mahogany zone oil shale from the Piceance Basin in Colorado) will be thoroughly characterized as will all generated products, including the spent shale, oil, carbon residues, gases and water. A series of environmental studies will also be carried out in order to assess the impact to groundwater quality of the various residues left in place following completion of shale oil production.

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Last modified: 16:08:26 Thu 13 Dec 2012