Developing a firmer understanding of shale oil’s chemical complexities is
crucial to oil explorers in both Israel and North America, who are drilling in
shale rock and sand in the search for alternatives to traditional OPEC crude, an
expert told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last week.
Initiatives (IEI), which has already completed an exploratory pre-pilot drilling
phase in Israel’s Adullam region near Beit Shemesh, has claimed that the area –
also called the Shfela Basin – contains approximately 250 billion barrels of
shale oil, amounts that could be competitive to the amount of crude oil in Saudi
Arabia. The company intends to acquire the oil by drilling a production well and
surrounding insitute heating wells approximately 300 meters below the Earth’s
surface, in order to melt the hydrocarbon-filled sedimentary rock from within
the ground before extraction.
While the country’s green groups adamantly
protest the drilling process as potentially catastrophic both below and above
ground, the company has repeatedly stressed that an impenetrable layer of rock
separates the shale layer and the water aquifer, and that there will likewise be
little permanent surface impact.
Prof. Carol Parish, of the chemistry
department at the University of Richmond in Virginia, has called the oil shale
finds in Israel a “gamechanger,” but also said it was crucial to study the
relatively new resource on a molecular level, and compare it to traditional
“In order to fully harness this resource, it is necessary to
develop a thorough understanding of the petroleum chemistry and reactivity of
the molecular constituents of oil shale,” Parish said.
Upon completing a
Fulbright fellowship with Prof. Sason Shaik, director of the Lise Meitner
Minerva Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at Hebrew University, Parish
spoke last week with the Post about the importance of studying shale oil on such
a close level. Parish visited Israel under the Fulbright fellows academic
exchange program, which works in partnership with the US-Israel Educational
Foundation that manages Israeli participation in the program.
research, Parish is looking at applying quantum mechanics techniques to the
characterization of molecules in alternative energy sources, particularly oil
sand and oil shale.
“There are actually a lot of parallels with the
development of petroleum crude,” she said.
Yet in typical light, sweet
crude oil, about 90 percent of the molecules exist in long, straight chains and
about 10% are cyclical, Parish explained.
The reverse is true for shale
oil molecules in that they are predominantly cyclic. Because crude oil is made
up almost entirely of straight chains, this is where the bulk of molecular
research has thus far been done on oil. Parish, on the other hand, is looking at
the cyclical molecules that dominate shale oil.
Often as a result of the
cyclical molecules, diradicals – molecules with two dangling electrons – can
form. According to Parish, diradicals are very difficult to properly
characterize because many are very reactive. Visiting Shaik’s lab in Israel for
four months allowed her to learn a specific quantum mechanics technique called
the Valence Bond Theory, aiding in the understanding of the bonding that occurs
between the diradicals.
With this knowledge, scientists will be able to
derive a more accurate characterization of the shale molecules, comprehending
the combustion and pyrolysis – decomposition of compounds by heat in the absence
of oxygen – that are the foundation for petroleum production, she
Due to Shaik’s expertise in Valence Bond Theory and the huge
oil shale supply in the country’s Shfela Basin, Parish stressed that the “the
two things put together caused Israel to be the perfect place to pursue this
kind of work.”
During her time here, Parish said her work with Shaik
amounted to a great success.
“We were able to characterize a diradical
system which hadn’t been characterized using valent bonds,” Parish said, noting
that she now has 90% of the results necessary to publish her
Because IEI plans to heat the shale in-situ, meaning while it
is still underground, rather than pump sludge to a refinery, Parish said she
believes that the process will be a much cleaner one than methods that have thus
“The advantage to the Israeli method is that they’re going
to get it pure, directly out of the ground, and don’t have to ship it to the
refinery,” she said. “They are basically going to do the refining right out of
She noted that another advantage the Israeli shale deposits
have over those of the US is that “there is an impenetrable layer of material
that separates oil shale deposits from the water table.” In the US, on the
contrary, the two layers are often intermixed.
Because she is not a
geologist and therefore could not officially confirm IEI’s claims that an
impassable barrier separates the shale and the aquifer, she stressed that “it
would be an outright lie to say what they are saying if it is not
Parish suggested that the green groups who doubt IEI’s claims
raise funds to bring in third-party geologists to survey the
Ultimately, focusing on her own research, Parish said she hopes
to be laying the groundwork for further research into the characteristics of
shale oil, as the world continues to demand more and more long-term, sustainable
sources of energy.
“The harvesting of oil shale is a very new field and
people become more interested in alternative energy like that when the price per
barrel of conventional fuel rises,” Parish added.
“There has to be an
economic motivation in order to harvest alternatives. I believe that we can get
a better understanding of the energy content and the reactivity of these
alternative sources of fuel,” she said.
“That too will motivate the
development of more sophisticated techniques to harvest the alternative fuels.”