Speaker describes wartime tale of economic survival with oil shale

With the shadow of Nazi occupation looming over the country, Sweden turned to oil shale in 1940.

“Oil shale got the Swedish economy through World War II,” Dr. Harold Vinegar said.

Vinegar outlined for the Oil Shale Symposium at Colorado School of Mines last week how Sweden exploited a low-grade oil shale deposit near the town of Kvantorp, using an in-situ process that bore a striking resemblance to the in-situ process Shell Oil Co. was pursuing in northwest Colorado. Vinegar is an oil and energy scientist who spent more than 30 years with Shell.

The Swedes already were mining the same oil shale deposit when they became frustrated by the cost and difficulty of digging to reach the shale they retorted to produce oil, Vinegar said.

Fredrick Ljungstrom came up with the idea of heating the shale in place and leaving the soil above it undisturbed.

Ljungstrom drove heating elements in a closely spaced hexagonal pattern down into the shale and sunk a collection well in the center.

The heaters and wells were shallow, in the tens of feet instead of the thousands of feet below the surface in the Piceance Basin.

Making the project more difficult was the lack of electricity. Ljunsgstrom could only get electricity to heat the shale four months of the year, during the spring runoff, when hydroelectric power was available, Vinegar said.

During those months, Ljungstrom used a mobile transformer to direct power into the cells he was using at any given time to heat the rock to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It really was a brilliant idea,” Vinegar said.

And it worked.

The Ljungstrom process produced 90,000 barrels of oil from 1942 to 1945 and 1.5 million barrels during its production life that ended in 1959.

The oil produced from Ljungstrom’s in-situ process was lighter and cleaner than the oil produced from the retort process on the same deposit, Vinegar said.

Groundwater beneath the deposit was protected by an impermeable clay layer that prevented contamination, Vinegar said.

In addition to inventing what is known as the Ljungstrom process for oil shale, Ljungstrom was also a co-inventor, with his brother, of high-pressure steam boilers, steam turbines and steam locomotives.

He also was a sailing innovator and the Ljungstrom rig — an arrangement of sails — is named for him.

The land he used to produce oil from shale over the years has changed.

“The area revegetated naturally,” Vinegar said. “It’s now a park where the in-situ process was run.”


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