Developing a firmer understanding of shale oil's chemical complexities is crucial to the search by oil explorers in both Israel and North America drilling at home in shale rock and sands for alternatives to traditional OPEC crude, an expert told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last week.

The company Israel Energy 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 in-situ 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, from the chemistry department at the University of Richmond in Virginia, has called the oil shale finds in Israel a "game-changer," but also said that it was crucial to study the relatively new resource on a molecular level, and compare it to traditional crude oil.

"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 Jerusalem Post about the importance of studying shale oil on such a close level.

In her 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 occurred in 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, which helps understand 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 explained.

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 efforts 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 research.

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 far prevailed.

"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 the ground." She noted that another advantage the Israeli shale deposits have over those of the United States 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 true." Parish suggested that the green groups who doubt IEI's claims raise funds to bring in third party geologists to survey the region.

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 ¬ that too will motivate the development of more sophisticated techniques to harvest the alternative fuels."

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