Human to Mars Advocate Robert Zubrin has a company to convert natural gas that would be flared into CO2 and hydrogen

In 1996, Zubrin founded and is president of Pioneer Energy, a Research and Development firm Colorado. The company’s focus is to develop mobile Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) systems that can enable CO2-based EOR for both small and large oil producers in the United States. The company has also developed a number of new processes for manufacturing synthetic fuels.

The US is flaring a lot of natural gas from the oil and gas fracking in North Dakota and other states. To capture the natural gas would involve creating pipelines to the wells. However, there are thousands of small horizontal wells being added every year. Zubrin system is mobile vehicles which have all of the conversion equipment that converts the natural gas to CO2 and hydrogen. The CO2 can be used to enhance the oil recovery and hydrogen can power equipment.

They are going to a system that can produce 500,000 cubic feet of CO2 per day and 1.2 megawatts of power. They can reduce by 90% the amount of CO2 and gas that is released into the air during flaring.

One of the things for Mars that Zubrin is known for is devising insitu systems for producing fuel out of the atmosphere of Mars. Here Zubrin has determined gear to produce desirable things from what would be wasted and polluting flared natural gas.

These trailer mounted CO2 will be able to boost oil recovery from about 30% of in place oil to 50-60% in many cases.

The Bakken’s growth has outpaced the pipeline infrastructure needed to collect and move natural gas to markets. This lack of gathering capacity means that around one-third of all the natural gas produced in the Bakken can’t be moved to market. Instead, it is burned at the wellhead, a practice known as flaring. Flaring produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, but industry advocates say that’s less harmful than if the methane-rich gas were vented directly to the atmosphere.

“Flaring has been difficult to address for a number of reasons,” says Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. For one thing, at 15,000 square miles (slightly larger than Maryland) the Bakken is North America’s largest oil-and-gas field. Its sheer size makes it difficult to build the needed infrastructure. For another, North Dakota winters freeze the ground rock solid and make it tough to lay pipeline for several months of the year. For a third thing, the field remains in its infancy; there’s a lot of catch-up work to be done.

“There’s definitely a market” for technologies that capture gas at the wellhead and turn it into a marketable commodity without flaring, Kringstad says.

Economic loss

A common misperception is that natural gas prices are too low to justify much investment. But Kringstad says the price for natural gas out of the Bakken is as much as twice that for natural gas at the benchmark Henry Hub in Louisiana. That’s because Bakken/Three Forks natural gas is rich in natural gas liquids (NGLs), which add value.

The North Dakota Pipeline Authority says that 1,000 cubic feet of raw natural gas may hold up to 12 gallons of NGLs, principally ethane, propane, butane, and natural gasoline.

It is estimated that around 220,000 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) a day is flared across North Dakota. This would mean a demand for up to 400-500 of Pioneer Energy’s system in North Dakota alone.

His Lakewood-based Pioneer Energy, in business since 1996, has developed a truck-mounted technology called a mobile alkane gas separator (MAGS), which gathers natural gas at the wellhead, strips out the NGLs for sale, and produces a stream of natural gas clean enough to run an electric power generator.

The technology is currently undergoing testing at the Rocky Flats site northwest of Denver; test results are expected next month. Up to 50 MAGS units a year may be built once the technology is proven and orders begin to arrive, Zubrin says

Zubrin says a MAGS unit can process 200 Mcf of raw natural gas a day. Expectations are that the system will produce enough methane to generate 450 kilowatts of electrical power and strip out 1,700 gallons of natural gas liquids per day.

At recent prices, Zubrin says the natural gas liquids produced by a single MAGS unit could have a market value of about $1,700 a day. Subtracting transportation costs, the NGLs could generate $1,000 a day in revenue. Additional revenue could be generated if grid-supplied or diesel-generated electric power was replaced by electric generators that run on natural gas produced by the MAGS.

The Pioneer Energy Web site estimates the total value delivered by a single MAGS unit could range from $730,000 to $1.8 million a year.

Zubrin declined to discuss the price tag for a MAGS unit, but says users will be able to make money on the first day the system is in place.

Pioneer Energy isn’t the only company offering a flare gas recovery system. GTuit started business 2011 with a product that also strips out NGLs from flare gas at wells. The company reportedly has sold several systems already and has orders for around 18 more. Zubrin says his company’s technology could have a wider market appeal because it is designed to process as little as 200 Mcf a day, while the GTuit system is optimized to process 1,000 Mcf a day.

“Wells don’t tend to stay at 1,000 Mcf a day,” Zubrin says. A well may start there, but may deplete rapidly and produce just half that amount within six months. Zubrin says his technology should remain viable for a longer period given the field’s production decline profil

Pioneer has developed patented equipment and processes for Enhanced Oil Recovery ( EOR) using CO₂ injection, whereby CO₂ is produced in situ, eliminating the cost of transporting the gas as well as the large capital outlay and time required for pipeline construction.

Rather than capturing CO₂ at a remote source and piping it to the oil field, the Pioneer “Portable Enhanced Recovery Technology” (PERT) steam reforms natural gas to EOR-grade CO₂ and H2 at the oil field location. The CO₂ is then injected into an injection well, while the H2 is burned in an included generator to produce near-zero-emission electricity for local use or sale to the grid. The revenue stream from the electric output covers the cost of the unit operation.

Pioneer Energy has built and is in the process of demonstrating a prototype of the PERT, which will have the capacity to produce 500 Mcf of CO₂ per day. In addition, the system produces 1,200 kWe of electricity from the by-product hydrogen, via an included generator system.

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