While partisans spar over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil south from the Alberta tar sands, the U.S. Department of Energy yesterday announced a new technology to make U.S. oil sands and heavy oil viable for refining.
The technology could spur mining of oil shale in the Green River basin in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, home to the largest domestic reserves. And oil companies could pursue heavy oil that has been left idle in the U.S. on the North Shore of Alaska and offshore California.
"Estimates for the U.S. heavy oil resource total about 104 billion barrels of oil in place — nearly five times the United States' proved reserves," said Jenny Hakun, spokesperson for DOE's Office of Fossil Energy, in a press release. "Although no commercial-scale development of U.S. oil sands or oil shale has yet occurred, both represent another potential future domestic unconventional oil resource."
DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory is managing the new technology for upgrading heavy oils, which are often too viscous to flow and too contaminated with sulfur and heavy metals to be accepted at refineries. Traditionally, heavy oils are upgraded by saturating them with hydrogen at high pressure and temperature, but this process has been too expensive and cumbersome to spur development of U.S. oil sands.
The new technology uses alkali metals to extract sulfur, arsenic and heavy metals, and it has succeded, in experiments, in removing up to 98 percent of sulfur. It was developed by a Utah firm, Ceramatec, that has its eye on tar sands in the Green River Valley:
"The Green River Basin shale oil resource contains over one trillion barrels," according to Ceramatec's DOE project page. "This technology may contribute toward developing this important energy resource and reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil supplies."
The technology has been licensed to a Canadian firm, Western Hydrogen of Calgary, to see how effectively it upgrades oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands.
"In nearly 6,000 hours of continuous operation, the process consistently removed sulfur and heavy metals," Hakun said.