No Crude Joke Here: Scientists Show How They Can Transform Heavy Crude Oil Easily and Cheaply
Credit: MATT BUXTON/FAIRBANKS DAILY NEWS-MINER
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, inspects a vial of treated crude during a presentation by the Fairbanks-based Heavy Oil Solutions, a company that is pioneering the use of super-heated super-pressurized water to transform sticky, costly crude oil into valuable light crude. Photo by Matt Buxton/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
JUNEAU — In a crowded committee room in the Capitol, petrochemical scientist Steve Yarbro held up a vial of refined oil, the product of a new process he’s engineering.
The attending lawmakers took turns Thursday holding the vial up against the light, inspecting the watery dark amber liquid with keen interest.
Yarbro explained how lab tests have proved super-heated, super-pressurized water can turn sticky, viscious heavy crude, of which there are billions of barrels on the North Slope, into much more valuable medium and light crude.
Yarbro is the lead engineer at the Fairbanks-based Heavy Oil Solutions, owned by Gerald Myer, that is developing the process, called SuperCritical Water Extraction and Refining.
The super-heated water breaks down the complex, long chains of molecules contained in heavy oil and transforms it into light, watery crude.
“The process costs about $5 a barrel,” he said. “If you upgrade it and you get an extra 20 to 25 dollars per barrel, you’re making 15 to 20 more a barrel. You’re looking at some incredibly large numbers.”
In addition, the process is largely fueled by the oil you’re putting into it, uses off-the-shelf technology and recycles most of the heat and pressure. Each processing unit could be contained in a few transportation containers and moved around as needed.
Yarbro and Myer are in Juneau in hopes to get some state funding to build a test project at the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center that could handle 5 barrels per day. That would give them a sense of how financially feasible supercritical water processing can be, he said.
He also said he’s avoided asking oil companies for investment because he doesn’t want to see the technology locked up or even shelved.
Yarbro visited Juneau last session, where he came away empty-handed, but this time around he’s ran lab tests with wild array of petroleum products ranging from North Slope crude, to refinery resid, asphalt he bought off Amazon.com, crud scraped out of oil storage tanks and even the paraffin wax scraped out of the pipeline that’s endearingly called “pigwaste.”
Yarbro was particularly pleased with the results from pigwaste, which actually produced some of the best-quality light crude.
“Paraffin pigwaste is great. It’s beautiful,” he said of the waxy brown solid.
“It's so easy to run and it gives you such nice oil.”
When asked if he’s tried putting coal in the process, Yarbro’s response drew gasps. His preliminary tests showed it can retrieve more than two barrels of oil from a ton of coal.
Yarbro downplayed his success with coal, however, saying there are several of problems dealing with the non-carbon materials in the source.
He said the focus should really be on developing heavy crude, which is currently blended with higher quality oil just so it can be transported.
“Go after the viscous oil right now, upgrade that to a lighter oil,” he said. “Right now you take a really good product and not so good product and you blend them and you make a mediocre product. We think you should take a good product and an even better product and make the best product you can.”
Visibly impressed by the results and the promising potential economics, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, poked a little fun at Yarbro.
“It looks likes you’ve violated the first and second laws of thermodynamics,” he said. “It looks like you’re getting something from nothing.”
Yarbro explained that some of the heavy oil itself is used as fuel for the reaction, so even though the process yields more volume because the lighter crude is less dense than heavy oil, there’s less overall mass. And because of that, in fact, 20,000 barrels of heavy oil will yield about 20,300 barrels of lighter crude.
“How much money do you want?” Dyson asked.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Matt Buxton at 907-459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics