Last night Al Fin posted about Marshall Savage whose idea is utilizing solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) placed within rocks at strategic locations. This approach would produce oil, gas, and electricity using an ‘in situ process’, without significant mining or rock removal.

The idea is a brilliant connection of existing technologies harnessed in a different way to make a difficult problem an immense opportunity.  The difficult problem is accessing the trillions of barrels of oil equivalent locked inside oil shale kerogens waiting for a clean and profitable approach of production.

Savage’s idea, now patented, is a subterranean heater composed of solid oxide fuel cells. Savage describes the apparatus as a number of fuel cells assembled in a vertical stack as plates that the patent refers to in the art as “interconnect plates”, or “bipolar plates”. Conduits throughout the stack supply the cells with fuel and air or other oxidant, and remove the exhaust gases. In the design the fuel cell stack is enclosed in a casing adapted for insertion into a well bore. An electrical connection is provided to the end furthest down (typically the bottom) of the stack to allow completion of an electricity generating circuit.

Block Diagram of How Geothermic Fuel Cells Work. Image Credit: Independent Energy Partners. Click image for the largest view.

An encased fuel cell stack would be inserted into a wellbore, probably and preferably vertically, but potentially horizontally or at some other optimal orientation.  Then the encased stack would be cemented into the borehole by a suitable heat conducting grout.

Fuel and air are pumped into the stack through the incorporated conduits to the fuel cells. Within the fuel cells, electrochemical reactions take place to produce electricity and heat. The electricity passes out of the stack through an electric circuit.

Fuel cells of the solid oxide type planned for the operation operate at temperatures in the 800 to 1000º C (1472 to 1832º F) range. This is also the preferred temperature range for many subterranean heating applications. Heat passes from the fuel cell stack to the underground formation by thermal conduction. Thus, the operating fuel cell stack acts as a down-hole conduction heater of enormous magnitude, perhaps taking a year or two of operation to prepare a resource layer for the in situ mining.

It’s quite an idea.  The idea is called Geothermic Fuel Cells and may be an industry game-changer.  The device holds tremendous promise in helping the U. S. harvest oil and gas in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way because the SOFCs put the reaction heat into the rock producing more fuel rather than radiating heat out into the air while making electricity.

A small Parker, Colorado company, Independent Energy Partners Inc. (IEP) is testing and developing the Geothermic Fuel Cells and could stand at the forefront of a new era in domestic energy production.  Their target is the Green River formation in the central U.S. Rocky Mountain region.

Al Forbes, chief executive officer of IEP explains the firm looks to recover three energy components from the Green River formation’s “unconventional hydrocarbons”.  The first, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the recovered hydrocarbon energy, is a high-quality oil from the processing of kerogen in the shale. The second is natural gas accounting for roughly one-third. The third is “baseload green electricity,” captured via the “electrochemical process” of fuel cells.

A video at energyTV is at this link.

The electricity is produced as a by-product of the process, with nearly 80% available as surplus and sold to utility or industrial companies, which offsets some of the costs associated with the process and the manufacturing of the Geothermic Fuel Cells.

The most important aspect, which could vault the firm into high-speed growth, is the unit is designed to operate on a portion of the natural gas produced during the process, resulting in a low carbon footprint.

Forbes said a Geothermic Fuel Cell would become a self-sustaining device that requires only a small amount of natural gas to kick-start the process.

It’s not a garage invention anymore.  After the patent process IEP worked closely with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Labs on design and engineering to confirm the “technical feasibility” of the Geothermic Fuel Cell.  IEP has also entered into agreements with Total Petroleum and the Colorado School of Mines, which has contributed technical support and will help conduct testing.

The investors and partners have to feel very good.  Along with the technology rights IEP owns mineral rights in the Piceance Creek Basin on the Western Slope that contain roughly 2 billion barrels of oil.  The existing partners add another estimated 16 billion barrels of oil in leases and options.

IEP and the Colorado School of Mines have begun an 18-month program to test the prototype prior to a field demonstration, and Delphi, a fuel cell manufacturer, has reconfigured some of its products to adapt to IEP’s application specifications.

One has to admire the creativity and heads ups mental connections that Mr. Savage has brought to oil and gas recovery.  Congratulations of the highest order are offered.

The Green River formation kerogen deposit is currently estimated to be up to 3 trillion barrels of oil and equivalents.  It’s a number likely to grow. The world’s oil production to date is only about a trillion barrels.

This may be a huge advantage to the U.S. economy and other heavy oil deposit nations around the world.  There may also be a market competition event for consumers as well.

Forbes expects commercial production of the Geothermic Fuel Cells by 2015 or 2016.  Electricity generation would begin at startup and oil and gas production should come within a couple more years.

Thanks for the heads up to Al Fin!


3 Comments so far

  1. Geothermic Fuel Cell System | Thinking Machine Blog on December 11, 2012 4:58 PM

    [...] Energy and Fuel blog posted an article about a fascinating new technology: geothermic fuel cells (GFC) for extracting unconventional [...]

  2. Neil Frandsen on December 15, 2012 1:52 AM

    I do wonder if the proponents of this idea just forgot about hydraulic fracturing, and insertion of proppants, or are carefully forgetting to mention the need.
    Because the rock layers, that they are planning to harvest, are not gonna five up their kerogen without some cracks for the liquified kerogen to flow through.
    I am sitting here, trying to imagine a heat conducting grout. I am also trying to imagine a ‘wire’ that goes very near to the hot system, connected to its bottom, that somehow survives for years and years of operation. {Oil Fields often operate for over 20 years}

  3. Marshall Savage on January 25, 2013 4:23 PM


    Your comment on the need for fractures is very perceptive. Oil shale is typically impermeable and it requires fractures or some other form of permeabiltiy for the oil to reach the collection well. Two things have made this possible in the field demostrations conducted by Shell:

    1) The oil shale formation is not uniform. It occurs, at least in the Piceance Basin, in layers of alternating rich and lean zones. They are labeled R-0 through R-8 from the bottom to the top and L-0 through L-5; R for Rich and L for Lean. I will put a graphic of it up on the web site. The L zones have far less kerogen and tend to be more highly fractured. Oil shale with a high kerogen content is more flexible and a lot tougher than the lean zones, while the lean zones are more brittle.

    2) As heat builds up around the heating well it causes the oil shale to release gases which increase the formation pressure. These “authogonous” pressures rise to levels which are sufficient to fracture the oil shale. The target formation is fairly shallow as these things go: 1000 feet compared to typical oil wells 8000+ feet deep. Therefore the ambient “lithologic” pressure, which is due to the weight of the overlying rock layers, is relatively low, around 1000 psi. Once the induced hot gas pressure exceeds the overburden pressure, the formation fractures. Oil shale is also a laminar material, having been laid down in parallel layers year by year in the bottom of a lake bed more than 10 million years ago. This makes the oil shale fracture horizontally along the bedding planes. This is different than typical “fracking” which usually creates vertical fractures radiating away from the well bore.

    So there are indeed fractures associated with our geothermic process, if not actual “fracking”.

    We have detailed plans in place that are intended to completely eliminate any contamination of ground water, despite the presence of the fractures. I would be glad to go into the details if you are interested.

    Regarding your other comments:

    The grout around the heater wells, if any, is not a good conductor of heat, but then neither is the oil shale. As long as the grout is not a better insulator than the oil shale it won’t have any effect on the over all process. It takes several years for the heat to conduct all the way to the collector well anyway, so we don’t think a few inches of grout will make much difference. PNNL, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, WA has done extensive computer modeling of the heat transfer. I think we have put graphics of those results up on the web site.

    I think the wire you are referring to is part of the pre-heating system for the fuel cells. It actually gets turned off after a few months. These wells will have been fully processed in a few years and the heat gets turned off after that, so they don’t need to last for 20 years like conventional oil wells.

    Please leave additional comments if you have them.

    Marshall Savage

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