December 7, 2016

I’M NOT SAYING IT’S MICROWAVES… BUT IT’S MICROWAVES: Move over, fracking. There’s a new technology in town.

As strange as it sounds, producers are experimenting with ways to zap previously unextractable oil resources with microwaves, which has the potential to kick-start an even bigger energy revolution than fracking — and appease environmentalists while they’re at it. This is potentially “a whole shift in the paradigm,” says Peter Kearl, co-founder and CTO of Qmast, a Colorado-based company pioneering the use of the microwave tech. Some marquee names are betting on the play: Oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips are pouring resources into developing similar extraction techniques, which can be far less water- and energy-intensive than fracking.

If producers can find a way to microwave oil shales in the Green River Formation, which sprawls across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, the nation’s recoverable reserves could soar and energy independence could become more than an election slogan. Even with existing methods — strip-mining the shale and then cooking it, or injecting steam to cook the rock underground (hydraulic fracturing is useless here) — the formation contains enough oil to last the U.S. 165 years at current rates of consumption. Microwave extraction could goose those numbers even higher.

Peak oil would seem to still be some ways off.