And he’s translated some of that work into a mobile oil and gas recovery unit, called the Mobile Alkane Gas Separator, or MAGS, that could eliminate one of the biggest headaches of wildcat drilling — the flaring of valuable natural gas when the well site is miles from a processing plant or pipeline.
Today, many energy companies are focused on finding and producing oil — which is priced higher than natural gas.
The problem is that every oil well also produces a mixture of natural gas and natural gas liquids. The liquids, including the crude oil, can be stored in tanks and transported by truck to market.
But the natural gas needs to be put into a pipeline to get to market. And if the nearest pipeline is miles away, the natural gas is typically burned off, or “flared,” into the atmosphere.
“Having wet flared gas is like having gold filings mixed with your lobster Cantonese — you can’t spend the gold and you can’t eat the food,” Zubrin said. “But if you can separate it, then you have lobster Cantonese and gold, and both of those are very good things."
In North Dakota, home of the booming Bakken oil field, the problem of flared gas grew so acute that in July the state passed new rules clamping down on the process.
The state figures about 30 percent of the natural gas produced in the state is burned off, or flared. New, lower limits will be imposed starting Oct. 1, and ratcheted down over the next six years. Oil wells that don’t meet the new standards will be limited in the amount of oil they’re allowed to produce.
Zubrin and his team, working since April 2013, have developed a mobile machine that takes the raw natural gas from a well, compresses it, removes the water from it and cools it so that it splits into three streams:
Zubrin figures that his system, running on a remote well in the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin north and east of Denver, could take in about 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day and generate enough methane to replace about $7,000 worth of diesel fuel per day. And, as a bonus, the system also would produce about 1,200 gallons of natural gas liquids for sale to the market, he said.
And the system is perched on a tractor trailer, meaning it can be moved to remote wellsites that are beyond the reach of a pipeline.
“This thing is one wheels, wherever you are, we can go,” Zubrin said, adding that the modular systems can be stacked together if needed.
MAGS grew out of a system that can turn boost oil production by using steam to turn natural gas into carbon dioxide, which can be injected underground to boost oil production, and hydrogen, which can be burned to generate electricity.
While there was interest in that system, there is more interest in a system that can eliminate the need to flare natural gas at remote well sites, Zubrin said.
“The flaring issue is an imperative,” Zubrin said. About $22 million in private money has been invested in the system, he said.
The system can handle natural gas from different fields, such as the Colorado’s DJ and the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.
Zubrin said oil and gas companies from around the world are interested in the MAGS system, which he figures he might rent out for about $2,000 per day.
“We’re starting to get a lot of interest,” Zubrin said. “We’ve had meetings with about a dozen oil and gas companies at this point. They’ve seen demonstrations and they like what they see at this point.”
The system can be operated remotely and moved to a new site and set up in about half a day, he said.
The company has operated the MAGS system at a test facility and Zubrin said he expects to rent out the first one by the end of the third quarter. When Pioneer gets enough orders, it will contract with another company capable of mass producing the systems, Zubrin said.
“This is a global problem, but it shouldn’t be, it should be a resource,” he said. “We shouldn’t be flaring this stuff , we should be putting it to use.”
Back to Articles