Geothermic Fuel Cells may make vast oil shale resources economically recoverable

The Colorado School of Mines has announced receipt of the world’s first geothermic fuel cell to test for extraction of oil from oil shale in an economic and environmentally responsible manner.  If the technology works, it could make available an estimated worldwide resource of 4.8 trillion barrels of oil, much of which, 2.6 trillion barrels, is in the United States.

Before proceeding, let’s clear up some terminology, the difference between oil shale and shale oil.

The term “shale oil” (and “shale gas”) refers to liquid crude oil and gas trapped in pores and fractures in rock. This resource can be directly pumped from wells. The recent revolution in “fracking” is all about shale oil.

As described by the Department of the Interior:

The term “oil shale” generally refers to any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials (called kerogen) that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in the chemical process of pyrolysis. Oil shale was formed millions of years ago by deposition of silt and organic debris on lake beds and sea bottoms. Over long periods of time, heat and pressure transformed the materials into oil shale in a process similar to the process that forms oil; however, the heat and pressure were not as great. Oil shale generally contains enough oil that it will burn without any additional processing, and it is known as “the rock that burns”.

Oil shale can be mined and processed to generate oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells; however, extracting oil from oil shale is more complex than conventional oil recovery and currently is more expensive. The oil substances in oil shale are solid and cannot be pumped directly out of the ground. The oil shale must first be mined and then heated to a high temperature (a process called retorting); the resultant liquid must then be separated and collected. An alternative but currently experimental process referred to as in situ retorting involves heating the oil shale while it is still underground, and then pumping the resulting liquid to the surface.

That’s were the geothermic fuel cell comes in.  The unit being tested at the Colorado School of Mines was built by  Delphi, headquartered in Rochester, NY, for IEP Technology, of Parker, Colorado.  The unit is described in detail by IEP here.

The idea is to place these fuel cells in wells where they will produce crude oil and natural gas to be collected by surrounding recovery wells.  A portion of the oil and gas produced is returned to power the fuel cell.


“After an initial warm up period in which the cells are fueled with an external source of fuel, the GFC self-fuels from gases created by its own waste heat. This self-fueling system, in steady-state operation, produces oil, electricity and surplus natural gases. The result is a geothermic heater that is designed to produce a Net Energy Ratio (NER) of approximately 7.0 (i.e., 7 units of energy produced for every unit used). The net energy ratio of GFCs will increase to approximately 18.0 when primary recovery is combined with residual char gasification and resulting synthesis gas.”

The map below shows the location of the main oil shale resources of the United States.




  1. There have been previous efforts to release petroleum from oil shale. I remember years ago when the AEC headed by Dixie Rae Lee (right name?) tried to “frac” oil shale through underground nuclear detonation. In fact, I stood on ground zero during once such experiment near Rifle, Colorado, and felt the ground shake beneath me. Nuclear facking failed because intense heat from the explosion melted the rock into glass containment.
    GFCs sound promising. Hope the economics is there.

    1. Tests were performed to fracture deeper Mesa Verde tight gas sands in the Piceance Basin by nuclear means, although they may have been slightly after the tenure of Dixie Lee Ray . Shale oil cannot be extracted by hydraulic fracturing alone, as the organic matter is solid. The nuclear frac may have extended beyond the small chamber, but I would suggest that cost was a more important factor in the failure to catch on. It would be remarkable if the commenter was actually at ground zero for the Rulison test, as this would be against most standard procedures for such tests.

      1. Jeremy, I stand corrected. Your comment jogged my memory, and I think the test indeed was for tight gas sands, rather than oil shale. The time was around 1973, long time ago. I actually did witness the test and recall Ms. Ray was in attendance.I think they were trying to find ways to get better recovery from gas fields such as Pinedale, Wyoming.

  2. The article is incorrect in its definition of “Shale Oil.” For more than one hundred years the term shale oil has referred to the product of retorting of oil shale, whether in the ground or below it.
    Jeremy Boak, Director
    Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
    Colorado School of Mines
    Viewpoints are mine, not positions of the Colorado School of Mines

    1. You are, of course, correct in part. It seems that the term “shale oil” has two usages. It is also used, by the Department of Energy, to refer to the oil in shale that is recovered by horizontal drilling and fracking.

      1. Some also use oil shale to refer to the rocks in which that oil occurs. That does not necessarily make it correct, and the lack of consistent terminology that acknowledges both technical priority and the need for terms for both rock and product has led to a great deal of confusion. It is likely to continue to do so until this problem is resolved. As a former DOE employee, I am hesitant to use DOE as a technical trendsetter in the petroleum arena.

      2. Let’s try to simplify it for the readers:
        Oil shale is a rock; shale oil is a liquid produced from the rock.

      3. I have argued that we need both terms for each play:
        1) oil shale (rock) produces shale oil (product)
        2) oil-bearing shale (rock) produces shale-hosted oil (product)
        3) gas shale (rock) produces shale gas (product)
        I use a USGS cross-section through the Uinta Basin that highlights top and bottom of the oil window to illustrate where the Green River Formation constitutes at least two of the three (maybe no source rock in the gas window). The lack of accepted terms for number 2 is the source of the confusion at present. Tight oil seems to be winning, but I have never seen oil I considered tight.

      4. Come visit the fuel cell during the 33rd Oil Shale Symposium, October 14-16 in Golden Colorado. Registration is complimentary for the press. I can be reached at

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