Fuel for Thought

What is Unconventional Oil?

Feb 09 2015 Read 842 Times

While petroleum is usually extracted using the oil well method this isn’t the only way to derive the valuable fossil fuel. Using alternative techniques companies are able to extract what the industry refers to as unconventional oil. And as orthodox oil reserves become increasingly scarce unconventional oil is set to emerge as the fossil fuel of choice for the modern world. But first…

What is unconventional oil?

According to the Energy Information Administration definitions for unconventional oil fluctuate with technological advancements and economic change. In fact, the US Department of Energy (DOE) states that "unconventional oils have yet to be strictly defined.” In general, unconventional oil refers to a range of liquid sources that are generaly more expensive to produe than conventional oil. 

What is classified as unconventional oil?

The latest report from the International Energy Agency states that unconventional oil encompasses oil shales, derivative oils, biomass based liquid supplies, coal-based liquid supplies, oil sands based synthetic crudes and gas to liquids (GTLs).

An overview of unconventional oil types

  • Oil sands

Oil sands are extra heavy crude oils or bitumen extracted from unconsolidated sandstone. Due to their density and viscousness oil sands can be difficult to produce. This limits extraction techniques, restricts ease of transportation and means that they can only be refined in modern factories with state-of-the-art equipment. Heavy oil sands are found across the globe, with the world’s two major deposits located in Venezuela and Canada.

  • Tight oil

This is a crude oil found in found in formations with low permeability such as tight sandstoe or shale. Extraction is carried out using hydraulic fracturing similar to methods used to produce shale gas.

  • Oil shale

Containing heavy traces of kerogen, oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that is rich is organic compounds. Using chemical processes companies can convert kerogen into shale oil and combustible oil shale gas. According to experts the world is currently sitting on 2.8 to 3.3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil shale, with 600 confirmed sites across the globe.

  • Thermal depolymerisation

Using waste materials and deposits, thermal depolymerisation recovers energy by heating and pressurising organic and inorganic compounds. The process is called hydrous pyrolysis and can be used on a range of different materials.

  • Coal and gas conversion

Boasting lower energy outputs than conventional oil extraction techniques, coal and gas conversion is based on synthetic fuel processes. Today, it accounts for a huge 240,000 barrels per day.

Are there any environmental concerns?

Like all other mining operations unconventional oil extraction creates waste, pollution and environmental concerns. One of the major worries is the impact of heating heavy oils in order to extract them from the ground. The extraction of unconventional oil also requires a large amount of water which makes it an undesirable option in drought stricken areas. Pollutants are another major concern, with operations releasing carbon dioxide and pollutants into the air as shale is heated. Environmentalists have also voiced concern about toxic chemicals seeping into surrounding ground water.

On-site infrared oil and grease measurements are a field-proven technology used worldwide for both the off-shore and on-shore oil and gas industry and is a reliable testing method that will help reduce public environmental concerns and allow for responsible shale oil and gas development. For more information on this topics, read: The Role of Oil in Water Testing in Unconventional Oil and Gas Operations.

The economic outlook for unconventional oil

As the price of conventional oil skyrockets due to depleting resources the popularity of unconventional oil is set to soar. New technologies will make extraction easier and cheaper, with countries such as Canada and America leading the way.

Image Source: Bitumen
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