Non-conventional oil

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Non-conventional oil is oil extracted using techniques other than the traditional oil well method. Currently, non-conventional oil production is less efficient and some types have a larger environmental impact relative to conventional oil production. Non-conventional types of production include: tar sands, oil shale, bitumen, biofuels, thermal depolymerization (TDP) of organic matter, and the conversion of coal or natural gas to liquid hydrocarbons through the Fischer-Tropsch process. These non-conventional sources of oil may be increasingly relied upon as fuel for transportation when conventional oil becomes "economicaly non-viable" due to depletion. Conventional sources of oil are currently preferred because they provide a much higher ratio of extracted energy over energy used in extraction and refining processes. Technology, such as using steam injection in tar sands deposits, is being developed to increase the efficiency of non-conventional oil production.


Tar sands

Main article: Tar sands

A potentially significant deposit of non-conventional oil is the Athabasca Tar Sands site in north-western Canada as well as the Venezuelan Orinoco deposit. It is estimated by oil companies that the Athabasca and Orinoco sites (both of similar size) have as much as two-thirds of total global oil deposits but they have only recently been considered proven reserves of oil as cost to extract shrank down to $18 a barrel. Extracting a significant percentage of world oil production from tar sands may not be feasible. The extraction process takes a great deal of energy for heat and electrical power, presently coming from natural gas, itself in short supply. There are proposals to build a series of nuclear reactors to supply this energy.


Main article: bitumen

Bitumen are substances such as asphalt and tar, that contain oil. Tar sands (above) contain bitumen, which is then turned into synthetic crude. For a description of this process, see the relevant section in the Tar sands article.

Oil shale

Main article: oil shale

Oil shale is a general term applied to a group of fine black to dark brown shales rich enough in bituminous material (called kerogen) to yield petroleum upon distillation. The kerogen in oil shale can be converted to oil through the chemical process of pyrolysis. During pyrolysis the oil shale is heated to 450-500° C in the absence of air and the kerogen is converted to oil and separated out, a process called "retorting". Oil shale has also been burnt directly as a low-grade fuel. The United States Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves estimates the world supply of oil shale at 1662 billion barrels of which 1200 billion barrels is in the United States [1]. Estonia, Russia, Brazil, and China currently mine oil shale, however production is declining due to economic and environmental factors.


Biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol are also hydrocarbon fuels. There are non-hydrocarbon biofuels as well such as anaerobic hydrogen producers.

Thermal depolymerization

Thermal depolymerization (TDP) has the potential to recover a lot of energy from existing sources of waste as well as pre-existing waste deposits. Because energy output varies greatly based on feedstock, it is difficult to estimate potential energy production.

Coal and gas conversion

The conversion of coal and natural gas has the potential to yield great quantities of non-conventional oil albeit at much lower net energy output. Because of the high cost of transporting natural gas, many known but remote fields are not being developed. Conversion can make this energy available even under present market conditions.

Synthetic oil

See also

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