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here comes the sun

The energy contained in crude oil can be traced back to the sunlight that prehistoric plants captured through photosynthesis. So it would be poetic justice if the sun can release that energy once again.

That’s now happening in California and Oman. Sunlight is being used instead of natural gas to heat water and make steam. The steam is then used to heat the oil in a field, making it flow more easily into wells. As a result, more oil can be economically produced.

“What we’re aiming to do is secure a greater recovery of oil while reducing our energy consumption, our emissions and our costs,” says Syham Bentouati, Head of New Technology Implementation at Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), a company in which Shell has a 34% interest. “This could be a win-win situation for PDO."

Solar so good

Oman has plenty of sunshine – but only during the daytime, of course. The cyclical nature of solar-generated steam has until now made petroleum engineers reluctant to implement it in oil-recovery projects. “Normally, oil fields don’t respond well to varying steam-injection rates,” explains Syham.

Fortunately, computer simulations gave PDO a nice surprise. They predicted that the daily cycle of sunshine will have minimal effect on the field’s oil output for a given amount of injected steam.

The results encouraged PDO to team up with GlassPoint, a company in which Shell recently acquired a small minority stake through its venture-capital arm. The company has developed a system of long, curved mirrors that focus sunlight onto water pipes, creating heat to generate steam. The mirrors are kept inside a glasshouse to keep dust, sand and wind from interfering with their performance.

See how a small Californian company use giant mirrors to generate steam for recovering thick, heavy oil

Learn how heat from the sun can make it easier to produce thick oil

A giant greenhouse

GlassPoint had already built a glass enclosure covering 650 square meters (7,000 square feet) in California to house the world’s first commercial solar-enhanced oil-recovery facility. The PDO facility is much bigger: 17,280 square metres (186,000 square feet) – more than two football pitches.

The Oman location presented a unique challenge: “The dust on the exterior accumulates 12 times faster in Oman than in California,” says Syham. Fortunately, an automated glass-washing system should ensure the sun shines in.