Analytical Instrumentation

Is There a New Source of Alaskan Oil in the Pipeline?

Mar 17 2017 Comments 0

Beyond incredible natural beauty, Alaska is a goldmine of natural resources. In fact, it’s home to more than half of America’s coal reserves, plus large amounts of oil generated from deep, subterranean coal. Now, a team of scientists have discovered a new way to ‘cook’ oil derived from Alaskan coal. For the nation, it could represent a host of exciting new exploration opportunities.

Cooking coal into oil

So what’s all the fuss about? The lab experiment saw scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey produce crude oil from pieces of Alaskan coal. Operating near Denver, they mixed four different coal samples with water, then used a reactor vessel to superheat it at a temperature of almost 700 degrees for three days. This ‘cooking’ process allowed then to successfully extract the waxy oil within, and generate liquid hydrocarbons from coal.

On average, the team produced 38 to 64 milligrams of crude oil from each gram of coal. The oil is called pyrolysate, a name derived from the term ‘hydrous pyrolysis.’ It describes the process used to create the oil, which involves the decomposition of heat and water.

Could hydrous pyrolysis unlock hidden oil reserves?

Geologists are now hoping that the state’s coal-rich areas could be housing undiscovered oil in sedimentary basins. According to David LePain, a petroleum geologist for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the findings could lead to new oil discoveries across the globe, including Australia. Locally, LePain hopes that the information could encourage companies to "poke around" in underexplored, coal rich areas like the Nenana or Susitna basins.

State geologist Steve Masterman described the project as “significant,” asserting that "the very fact you can generate liquid hydrocarbons from coal is potentially a big step forward." In theory, pyrolysate could be used to refine gasoline and other crude-oil derivatives.

That said, he was quick to highlight the fact that there’s still plenty of groundwork to be done before coal becomes a bona fide source of oil.

"I don't want people to have the wrong idea and think we're going to get all this oil from coal next year, or five years from now," he said. "It's research at this point."

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