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Rural company Dragon Shale looks to transform Utah’s oil shale industry

Located in Vernal, one fledgling Utah startup, Dragon Shale, is looking to disrupt the oil shale and petrochemicals industries and bring new opportunities for growth in rural Utah.

Through a new technology currently under development, Dragon Shale aims to extract and covert petrochemicals from oil shale more efficiently, resulting in a lower carbon footprint, water use and emissions than traditional processes.

“For over a hundred years, industry has repeatedly tried and failed to capitalize on one of America’s largest natural resources, [oil shale],” said O.J. Schneider, co-founder of Dragon Shale. “Dragon Shale is developing a radical new technology that is more economically and environmentally efficient.”

Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, an organic-compound-rich resource that can be used to extract petrochemicals. It is increasingly seen as a valuable, low cost source of energy, both as crude oil and combustible gas, as well as a source of additional byproducts. Oil shale is not only used as a fuel for thermal power-plants to drive steam turbines, but can be used in the production of specialty carbon fibers, resins, road bitumen and soil-additives.

Northeastern Utah (as well as neighboring Colorado and Wyoming) is home to some of the largest oil shale deposits in the world. In particular, the Mahogany Zone of the Uintah Basin potentially holds more than 71 billion barrels of kerogen oil reserves through its naturally-occurring oil shale deposits.

Dragon Shale hopes its technology will address economic and environmental challenges facing the global oil shale market, which according to Allied Market Research, reached $1.6 billion in 2017 and is growing at an estimated 16.7 percent a year.

“Dragon Shale technology enables small scale low-risk projects,” said Schneider. “Dragon Shale technology can produce petrochemicals more responsive to market needs and at lower capital cost than conventional refineries and other methods.”

Kerogen oil has been traditionally valued as a synthetic crude to make fuels such as gasoline and diesel, explained Ron Stites, co-founder of Dragon Shale, at a Vernal Chamber of Commerce event in March. However, this method—which requires production in a conventional refinery—is not only expensive, but also pollutes and requires a high volume of water.

In addition to being used as a synthetic crude, kerogen oil is rich in chemicals that have high value in the petrochemical and related industries. Rather than destroying these chemicals to make fuels, Dragon Shale’s technology allows them to be extracted and separated, allowing the resource to be utilized more efficiently.

Dragon Shale’s unique approach reduces the process plant size, is considerably more environmentally responsible and has minimal demand for precious water resources.

“Dragon Shale technology produces lower emissions and consumes little or no water,” said Schneider. “Most importantly, the non-fuel products have no downstream carbon emissions footprint. As new technology, Dragon Shale plants will be more efficient and can make maximum use of non-fossil fuels energy sources for any supplemental process energy requirements.”

Additionally, modular plants that utilize Dragon Shale’s technology can be located in areas lacking traditional infrastructure necessary for refineries, providing new economic opportunities in areas of Utah. As a result, Dragon Shale’s technologies may allow for new economic opportunities in the Uintah Basin and other oil shale rich regions.

“These projects enable the resource owner rather than a third party to be able to license, build and own the production capability to process their own resource keeping the greatest value in the local economy,” said Schneider.

Dragon Shale recently finished the development of a semi-continuous, pilot version of its device to extract kerogen oil, through support from the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR). The pilot device is being used to produce operational data and samples of products for market evaluation.

“We still have a lot to do, but the USTAR-supported project has been instrumental in moving us from basic ideas to showing technical feasibility on the scale that you see here,” said Stites. “We believe that this is a great example of how a public/private partnership can assist in this difficult transition.”

To learn more about Dragon Shale, visit

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