- Minimal emissions and creation of clean, stable, baseload electricity
- Little to no surface impact
- No chemicals used in the operation of geothermic fuel cells
- Minimal to no water resources needed
In-situ geothermic fuel cells (GFCs) developed by Independent Energy Partners, Inc. (IEP) will fundamentally change and significantly reduce the environmental impacts of unconventional hydrocarbon recovery. GFCs use waste heat produced by the in situ fuel cells to heat the ground for a multitude of applications ranging from oil and gas recovery to environmental remediation and landfill gasification to generate clean, baseload electricity.
While fuel cell may conjure images of chemicals, IEP’s geothermic fuel cells actually use no chemicals. The technology is based on solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) that use ceramic as the heat and energy conduit versus acids or chemicals in traditional batteries. SOFC fuel cells are stacked to form modules and placed in situ (in place or in the ground), which creates the unique application of geothermic fuel cells that use t conductive heat (solid-to-solid) to essentially create ground heaters.
When operated in suitable hydrocarbon deposits, Geothermic Fuel Cells will stimulate oil and gas production by volatilizing gases, pressurizing formations, reducing viscosity of fluids, and creating permeability that allows resources to be recovered by more conventional means.
Key environmental advantages of the GFC process are:
- Once past a brief start-up period, a Geothermic Fuel Cell installation is essentially a closed loop system: it can be directly fueled by a portion of the lighter hydrocarbons (e.g., butane, propane) released in the geothermic production process.
- As a by-product of its operation, the Geothermic Fuel Cell also produces electricity (rather than consuming energy, as is the case with other geothermic technologies such as down hole combustors or resistance heaters), which is then sold into the electric utility grid.
- Unlike other techniques used to produce oil from shale or sands, Geothermic Fuel Cells eliminate mining, retorting, and spent shale/sand disposal operations. Since each of these activities requires substantial amounts of water and/or has large surface impacts, the environmental footprint of Geothermic Fuel Cells is much smaller than that of other techniques. This advantage not only substantially reduces capital and operating costs, but also reduces the basis for many environmental objections often raised concerning production techniques associated with unconventional reserves.
Thus, once the fuel cells are in steady-state operation, a Geothermic Fuel Cell installation becomes essentially a self-fueling energy production system that operates and consistently produces oil, gas and electricity with minimal environmental impact.
Minimal Air Emissions
Geothermic Fuel Cells produce minimal air emissions as an inherent result of the GFC design and process. Since there is no combustion process in the GFC – fuel cells produce electricity through an electrochemical reaction – there is negligible production of NOx, SO2, particulate or toxic emissions, which are contributors to acid rain; depleting ozone; haze; and health issues. Further, unlike other forms of oil or electricity production, which require significant energy input (and associated air emissions), the GFC requires no external energy input after its brief start-up period.
Natural gas (first from an external source, then from in-situ sources as the nearby ground is warmed) is processed into a hydrogen-rich fuel at the surface and is then injected along with ambient air into the down-hole GFC stacks. The fuel cells produce electricity, heat, and water. The electricity produced by the GFC is sufficient to run the ancillary equipment associated with the installation (e.g., gas processing, pumps, blowers, etc.), with excess to be sold into the electricity grid as “green” power.
All fuel cells share the advantage of being able to capture CO2 emissions at significantly lower cost than typical combustion-based power generation systems. This is due to the fact that air and fuel never mix in fuel cells of the type GFCs employ. Therefore any CO2 produced by GFCs is not diluted in the exhaust stream by nitrogen from the air, and therefore less expensive to capture, which would allow the entire process to be virtually free of atmospheric emissions.
Minimal Surface Impacts
A GFC installation works by heating the ground through the use of high-temperature fuel cells that are installed within the hydrocarbon formation. By implication, other than small footprints (e.g., gas processing facility, electrical substation, surface ports for GFC stacks and collection wells), there is minimal aesthetic or noise impact to surface areas. This is in stark contrast to other approaches that are used or have been attempted for unconventional oil recovery.
One of the biggest environmental problems associated with mining-based operations is the need to dispose of massive quantities of waste ‘tailings.’ In the case of tar sands, tailings take the form of sand that has been stripped of its bitumen. In oil shale, the tailings problem is even more acute because spent shale is typically a very powdery material that easily disintegrates when handled. This creates massive dust problems, and if the material retains residual fixed carbon, it can be subject to other problems like spontaneous combustion. Since GFCs utilize a true in situ approach, meaning that the ore body is not mined but is left in place relatively undisturbed, waste disposal problems are hence eliminated.
Minimal Water Requirements
Surface mining and retorting operations historically associated with the recovery of unconventional oil reserves have required large quantities of water (~3 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced) to process the mined hydrocarbon into usable petroleum products.
While GFCs require some water for drilling and industrial operations, they are essentially self-sufficient in process water. Fuel cells produce steam as an exhaust. This steam will be re-circulated through the fuel pre-reformers on the surface, which will eliminate most if not all needs for outside process water.
On-site Energy or Returned Baseload Energy
GFCs produce clean electricity as a byproduct of operation regardless of application. This electricity will be used to operate the site for gas processing and pumps for increased energy efficiency. Apporximatley 80% of the electricity generated is surplus and will be sold into the electric utility grid to create an ongoing source of baseload green electrical power to the utility or industrial customer and added revenue to the company or project.