We asked ourselves, “Is there a higher value use for Oil Shale and the organic compounds it contains?”

Organic matter deposited over many millions of years in the ancient inland seas and lakes of North America is now trapped in layers of oil shale. This organic matter can naturally convert under normal forces of heat and temperature within the earth, as happened when buried under erosion from the rising Rocky Mountains and other geological shifts. Compressed organic matter, known as Kerogen was created in this manner and has been a source of conventional and tight crude oil. While Oil Shale deposits exist worldwide the largest can be found in the states of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

In these three states the richest deposit of Oil Shale is found in the mahogany zone of the Green River formation. This is an easily accessible, shallow formation enabling straight-forward extraction using existing technology. There is estimated to be over 71 billion barrels of recoverable Kerogen Oil in this zone alone.

Kerogen Oil, which constitutes most of oil shale’s organic matter, is a highly cross-linked, macromolecular material distributed in a heterogeneous inorganic matrix. It has long been known that pyrolysis of oil shale breaks down the complex kerogen network structure to produce shale oil and natural gas. This is what attracted early commercialization efforts. It was also known that Oil Shale can be processed in conventional refineries, though at high cost of operational severity and with significant environmental impact.

Dragon Shale grew out of a research project initiated by Ettanet and Stites and Associates, now with funding from USTAR

The genesis of Dragon Shale lay in the coming together of two companies Ettanet, LLC and Stites and Associates, LLC (SALLC). Both had carried out technology development projects with other oil shale companies and, their interest peaked decided to combine efforts and do a more extensive study of the entire industry.  The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) of Singapore provided six chemical engineering students from their prestigious renaissance program.  The project focused on oil shale technology evaluation and business development.  Two of the interns were assigned to SALLC in Denver, Colorado with the remaining four assigned to Ettanet and based out of the University of California, Berkley.

The SALLC group worked on a general review of the industry and the associated history and technologies. The Ettanet group, based out of Berkley focused on some specific technologies and oil shale properties.  The combined group along with Ron Stites of SALLC traveled western Colorado and eastern Utah visiting oil shale companies, properties, state and academic groups.

During this research it became clear that industry had retained too narrow a focus for using Oil Shale in the most “obvious” way, as a refinery feedstock to make fuels, when in fact better opportunities existed.

Dragon Shale has taken a fresh look at the oil shale industry

Dragon Shale, LLC, was launched in 2016 to commercialize the business opportunities that were discovered during the research by Ettanet and SALLC. One of the greatest challenges in the oil shale industry is the relatively low hydrogen/carbon (H/C) ratio of the native kerogens.  This impacts not only the quality and quantity of the oil produced but makes the removal of undesirable contaminants like sulfur, nitrogen and arsenic problematic.

Over the decades many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by companies, small and large in an effort to overcome these issues. The goal of course being to use the Kerogen as a refinery feedstock to make fuels. So far, these efforts have largely come to nothing yet industry persists with this approach. Dragon asked itself, “Is there a higher value use for Oil Shale and the organic compounds it contains?”. Kerogen is rich in organic compounds which have high economic value to a number of industries. From personal care products, adhesives, paints to road surface binders and drilling fluids. So instead of destroying them as happens when making synthetic crude, why not extract them directly?

This is what Dragon Shale is now working to perfect. The conversion and separation of Kerogen from Oil Shale into high value end products. Doing this not only makes commercial sense but also environmental sense. This process requires far less water, produces far fewer pollutants and uses significantly less energy. The smaller scale lends itself to modular plants that can be assembled on site. These can be designed and optimised for the specific types of Oil Shale at hand, environmental considerations and available infrastructure.

Dragon Shale has self-funded the development effort to reach this stage. In May 2018 USTAR awarded Dragon a grant under its Technology Accelerator Program which has enabled the current pilot scale operations to be expanded. Dragon is open to series A funding and investment enquiries.

USTAR, the Utah Science, Technology And Research initiative

The Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative was established in 2006 though the vision of Utah’s governor, legislature and business community. USTAR plays a critical role in transforming ideas and research into disruptive products and services that promote the continued growth and diversification of Utah’s Economy.

Focused on Utah’s current and emerging economic clusters, USTAR provides technology entrepreneur services, competitive grant funding, mentoring, and incubation facilities. USTAR’s programs are designed to increasingly diversify the state’s economy while helping create high quality jobs and new companies.