Clean-tech oil shale company turning heads

Chris Michlewicz
Posted

Whether for economic or environmental reasons, efforts to extract energy from the nation’s abundant mineral resources have been met by roadblocks.

A little-known energy technology company in Parker is breaking down those barriers and stands at the forefront of a new era in domestic energy production. Independent Energy Partners Inc. is in the early stages of rolling out an industry game-changer, a device that holds tremendous promise in helping the United States harvest energy in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way.

The seven-employee firm with offices on Pine Drive is about to turn the oil shale industry upside down with its in-situ Geothermic Fuel Cell, a solid oxide fuel cell unit that heats subterranean rock formations to recover three energy components from “unconventional hydrocarbons,” said Al Forbes, chief executive officer of IEP.

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. The third is “baseload green electricity,” captured via the “electrochemical process” of fuel cells. The electricity is produced as a by-product of the process, with nearly 80 percent being surplus and sold to utility or industrial companies, which offsets some of the costs associated with the process and the manufacturing of the high-tech Geothermic Fuel Cells.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect is that the unit is designed to operate on a portion of the gases produced during the process, resulting in a low carbon footprint, especially when compared to antiquated methods that are still being used. The GFC becomes a self-sustaining device that requires only a small amount of natural gas to start the process.

Independent Energy Partners has spent the last six years quietly forging partnerships with major players, including Delphi Corp., which already manufactures solid oxide fuel cells for the commercial market.

“We’ve kept a fairly low profile until recently for a variety of reasons,” Forbes said.

After getting patents, 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 partners have leases or options on oil shale resources in the Rocky Mountain Region that contain an estimated 16 billion barrels of oil; IEP owns mineral rights in the Piceance Creek Basin on the Western Slope that contain roughly 2 billion barrels of oil.

The low-emission process was developed by Marshall Savage, who approached Forbes with his idea in 2003. The founder of IEP was so convinced that the “revolutionary” product would succeed, that he dropped all other business ventures, including renewable energy, to strictly focus on the GFCs.

“My sensitivities to environmental issues, along with the amount of oil our country relies on and the domestic resources we have to develop, when I reviewed it, it rang all of the bells,” he said.

The company, alongside the Colorado School of Mines, has begun an 18-month program to test the prototype prior to field demonstration, and Delphi has reconfigured some of its products to adapt to IEP's application. Forbes expects commercial production of GFCs by 2015 or 2016.

Meanwhile, IEP and its partners are keeping close tabs on the construction of a $1.2 billion refinery known as the Uintah Gateway Project in eastern Utah, just 50 miles from IEP's oil shale resources, that will enable them to create a top-to-bottom oil and gas production company. With all of the cost efficiencies, the innovative process will be able to produce oil for less than $40 per barrel, and that figure does not factor in the sale of by-product electricity, Forbes said.

Discussions about the technology in Washington, D.C., have had lawmakers on the “edge of their chairs,” largely because of the high thermal efficiency and minimal environmental impacts, Forbes said.

Because Colorado has a large portion of the nation’s oil shale, it is expected to be a boon for the state’s economy. IEP, which holds the patents to the technology, could soon become a well-known name.

“No one is pursuing what we’re doing,” Forbes said.

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