Can Oil Be Renewed? Here’s What Science Says

Can Oil Be Renewed? Here’s What Science Says

Energy experts classify oil as a nonrenewable resource. However, that doesn't mean people can't still abide by eco-friendly practices when using it.

When people discuss recycling and other environmental topics, they often split energy into two types: renewable and nonrenewable. A nonrenewable source cannot be replenished when the available supplies run out. In contrast, renewable energy comes from limitless sources, such as the wind or the sun.

Energy experts classify oil as a nonrenewable resource. However, that doesn't mean people can't still abide by eco-friendly practices when using it.

Scientists Devise a Way to Extract Hydrogen from Oil Fields

A recent joint project from Proton Technologies and scientists at the University of Calgary investigated the possibility of pulling hydrogen from oil sands and fields.

Hydrogen is an option for electricity production and automobile fuel for hydrogen-powered cars, which produce no greenhouses gases from their tailpipes. Earlier efforts involved extracting hydrogen from oil, too, but the process was too expensive to meet economic viability requirements.

The scientists' process involves injecting oxygen into the oil fields to raise the temperature and remove the hydrogen. The team must use special filters to separate the hydrogen from other gases, however.

Grant Strem, the CEO of Proton Technologies, wants to commercialize the process. He explained why this new method is a cost-saving option:

“This technique can draw up huge quantities of hydrogen while leaving the carbon in the ground. When working at production level, we anticipate we will be able to use the existing infrastructure and distribution chains to produce [hydrogen] for between 10 and 50 cents per kilo. This means it potentially costs a fraction of gasoline for equivalent output.”

Other methods of hydrogen extraction from oil cost as much as two dollars per kilo, for comparison. Moreover, this new method uses hydrogen to power the oxygen plant.

Dr. Ian Gates, a scientist associated with the project, noted: “There are vast oil sand reservoirs in several countries, with huge fields in Alberta in Canada, but also in Venezuela and other countries.”

It's also important to remember that oil fields—even abandoned ones—still contain significant amounts of oil. The scientists say their method is pollution- and emissions-free, and they are excited to see if this approach could offer a new use for oil fields.

A Team Creates Crude Oil from Water and Algae

Thanks to scientific advancements, oil may not be defined as a nonrenewable resource forever. That's because, in 2013, engineers came up with a chemical process that turns a water-and-algae mixture into crude oil. After refining, the oil could be used for gasoline and diesel or aviation fuels. The people who worked on this project also said a byproduct of the method contains phosphorus and supports growing more algae.

This possibility is one example of how not every kind of oil is necessarily nonrenewable. As science continues to progress, it's anyone's guess what the future may hold for sourcing oil responsibly.

When Will We Run Out of Oil?

Although most people know there is not an unlimited supply of oil, they probably don’t realize the long history of most of what’s harvested today. The majority formed during the Mesozoic era, which occurred between 252 and 66 million years ago. Still, given that modern societies are so dependent on oil, many anxiously wonder when we'll finally run out.

People have made predictions about the dreaded oil depletion since the 1800s, and they are yet to come fully true. Although there have been cases where oil production peaked, it started rising decades later, and analysts never anticipated that part. Although people should not fear we’ll run out of oil soon, they should try to stay aware of and support methods of extracting oil in environmentally responsible and sustainable ways.

Recycling Oil Is an Excellent Idea

Your household may recycle things like aluminum cans, paper and plastic bottles—but did you know that oil is also recyclable?

People who use recycled oil for heating can save money while helping the environment, for example. Also, a gallon of used motor oil provides the same 2.5 quarts for lubrication as 42 gallons of crude.

When you recycle oil responsibly and take it to the appropriate centers, those thoughtful actions also prevent it from leaking into waterways and polluting them. Consider that motor oil does not become wholly unusable due to age or the amount of time a person used it in their vehicle. It merely gets dirty and can be used again after the recycling process that cleans it.

By recycling oil, you can help people get more use out of a finite resource, thereby delaying the point when the world’s supplies might run low. It’s worth seeing where your nearest drop-off point is, then carefully following the instructions for storing your used oil before transporting it there.

Changing the Way People Think About Oil

Even though oil is officially classified as a nonrenewable resource for now, emerging options show that people need not stop using it to maintain a sustainable mindset.

Scientists are working on new technologies, and consumers can do their part now by recycling.

About the Author

Jenna Tsui is a Texan journalist who co-owns The Byte Beat blog. She writes about the latest news in sustainability, culture, technology and more. Check out her work on TBB or follow her on Twitter @jenna_tsui .

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