COSIA summit showcases cutting-edge technologies that could transform Alberta’s oilsands industry

Author: Mark Lowey


Publish Date: Friday, May 5, 2017

Second of two stories by EnviroLine from the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance Innovation Summit 2017. The first story was posted on April 24, 2017.


Oilsands producers, technology developers and university researchers are working on a range of new technologies to improve the industry’s energy and environmental performance, speakers told the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) Innovation Summit 2017.

Using radio frequencies (RF) instead of steam to heat and extract bitumen deposits in in situ operations could produce the same amount of bitumen as steam-assisted gravity drainage technology, but with half the energy input, Mike Tourigny, vice-president commercialization, RF Heating at Calgary-based Acceleware Ltd., told the summit, held March 21-22 in Calgary.

RF heating is essentially “an inside-out microwave oven” that offers several advantages over steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) methods, he said in a panel session on “In Situ Energy Innovation.”

            Acceleware has developed patent pending RF technologies that can reduce capital costs by 76 per cent and operating costs by 43 per cent compared with current SAGD methods, Tourigny said.

RF could also reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 56 per cent by 2030 – the target for phasing out coal-fired power in Alberta, he said. If the electricity used for RF was all from renewable sources, then GHGs could be cut by 100 per cent.

RF heating also could open up Alberta’s unproven oilsands resources, which total 1,634 trillion barrels (compared with 166 billion barrels of proven reserves), Tourigny said. He expects commercial RF solutions to be available by 2020.

Acceleware is working with super-major petroleum corporations and other oil companies. Their research has found that RF heating can work, but several challenges remain, including:

  • current efficiency is too low;

  • capital investment cost per watt is too high;

  • there are limitations to putting enough power through the wellbore; and

  • effectiveness is limited with longer well lengths.

Acceleware has partnered with General Electric to develop a new RF heating design and delivery method aimed at reducing losses. Tourigny said the new design has several advantages, including:

  • no external water or solvent needed;

  • can be remotely managed;

  • can be moved after use (e.g. to another wellbore or well pad);

  • uses grid or operator power;

  • is very scalable (can start with one well and scale up); and

  • is effective in wells up to 2,000 metres long.

Another advantage is that the new design can be producing bitumen on day one, Tourigny said, adding: “This is pretty much plug and play.”

Acceleware and GE have conducted a near-surface “ditch test” of the new RF heating design. The three-day test was run at 1/20th of commercial scale power and length to validate core design elements of the solution.

In March this year, Acceleware announced it had successfully completed the first phase of a multi-phase field test program for its RF XL enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology for in situ oilsands and heavy oil production. Acceleware also announced it has sold the data and a report from the test to an oilsands producer.      

The next step, a commercial-scale field test, is planned for this year and 2018. It will deploy a 1,000-metre RF XL heating system, using Acceleware and GE’s silicon carbide power electronics technology, into an oilsands reservoir with fully instrumented wells.

Tourigny, in a Q&A session, was asked whether RF heating would interfere with another company’s nearby bitumen property. He said this was unlikely, but needs to be confirmed with field trials of RF technology.


Improving oilsands mining performance

In a separate panel session on “Mining Technologies to Reduce GHGs,” Rory Heffel, process engineer at Teck Cominco Limited, said COSIA is also seeking new technologies that can generate hot water for oilsands mining operations while reduce GHG emissions. Producing hot water is the No. 1 energy challenge in the entire process, he said.

In a keynote session on “Tailings Technology Fundamentals,” David Rennard, research engineer at Imperial/Exxon Mobil Corp., told the summit that research gaps and opportunities still exist in several areas, including:

  • technology fundamentals such as clay chemistry and water chemistry in tailings ponds;

  • technology optimization and commercialization;

  • tailings collection, transportation and depositional flow;

  • management of tailings in water bodies, such as end-pit lakes; and

  • better consolidation of tailings.

COSIA received approximately 50 new tailings management technology proposals in the past year that are now being evaluated, Rennard said.

Ward Wilson, professor of geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering at the University of Alberta, said research at the university’s Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility includes the soil mechanics of tailings deposition.

There are currently more than 220 square kilometres of tailings ponds water in Alberta, according to Alberta Energy.

In March, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) rejected an oilsands tailings pond retirement plan submitted by Suncor Energy, according to a story by Global News. The regulator said Suncor’s application didn’t satisfy regulatory requirements and the company must submit a new proposal.

Suncor had proposed using a water cap to contain the tailings at its northern Alberta facilities. But the AER said that Suncor didn’t provide “adequate information” about how the company would demonstrate the proposal’s viability, and also failed to adequately describe its alternative plan to retire the tailings ponds by filling them in with a solid material.

Wilson told the COSIA summit that compared with mineral mine tailings, which are ground-up rock, the challenge of oilsands tailings is that they are essentially less permeable “washed soil” containing lots of water. Oilsands tailings also contain bitumen, which complicates reclamation approaches like chemical treatment, he added.

The biggest challenge is more rapid dewatering of oilsands tailings, Wilson said. An approach being tried to speed up dewatering and reclamation is to add solids, such as shale, to mature fine tailings to ‘bulk up’ the solids to 70 per cent, he said.

Paul Simms, professor of environmental engineering at Carleton University, said research at the Ottawa-Carleton Institute for Environmental Engineering is investigating the long-term dewatering of tailings and how to “de-risk” some new tailings reclamation technologies.

Research goals include: being able to rapidly predict tailings consolidation properties for emerging new tailings treatment technologies; to optimize tailings amendments (e.g. polymers) for long-term dewatering; and enable industry to meet reclamation targets more efficiently, Simms said.


Utilizing carbon dioxide in the oilsands

Another expert panel looked at the potential of “CO2 Conversion” in the oilsands industry.

Panelist Ataullah Khan (photo below) research scientist and technical lead of the thermochemical processing team at InnoTech Alberta, pointed out that current global GHG emissions are between 35 to 50 gigatonnes per year, with only about 200 megatonnes per year of CO2 being used to prevent it escaping into the atmosphere.

Khan said catalysts can be used to convert CO2 in oilsands operations to useful chemicals, through various processes such as CO2 reforming of methane to produce synthetic gas onsite. The challenge is to develop catalysts that can withstand contaminants and steam, he added.

Panelist Abdelhamid Sayari, professor of chemistry and biomolecular sciences at the University of Ottawa, said the university’s Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation, which has patented novel CO2 adsorbents, has done extensive research on CO2 capture and CO2 catalyst functionality.

Sayari said two of his current projects are 1) using cyclic carbonates (biodegradable solvents that are ‘greener’ than conventional solvents) for various industrial applications, including making polymers; and 2) developing a single-state biogas cleaning process. Biogas consists of methane and CO2 along with some trace gases. The CO2 and trace gases such as water vapour and hydrogen sulphide must be removed before the biogas can be used as a fuel.

Panelist Md Golam Kibria (photo above) a postdoctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, said the group he’s working in, led by Ted Sargent, is developing  

highly efficient, engineered catalysts to produce gas and liquid fuels and other products. By chemically selecting or ‘tuning’ the catalyst, the process can be used to make carbon monoxide, formic acid, methane, methanol, ethylene, ethanol and propylene – all of which except methane (because of the low price of natural gas) would be profitable, he said. 

The Sargent group or Team CERT is a semi-finalist in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a $20-million global competition to develop breakthrough technologies that convert CO2 from power plants and industrial facilities into valuable products.


Transforming oilsands and heavy oil production

Another expert panel at the COSIA summit discussed “Low Carbon Heat and Power.”

Panelist Steve Larter, professor of petroleum geology and Canada Research Chair in Petroleum Geology at the University of Calgary, described a project called “SYZYGY” (meaning a pair of connected or corresponding things) which is aimed at direct production of electricity from oil fields using electron shuttle systems. The project offers the potential to produce electrical power from oil fields without any carbon emissions, he said.

Several UCalgary researchers are focused on the chemical oxidation of oil or bitumen in situ, retaining the carbon dioxide below ground and producing a reduced energy vector that can be recovered and re-oxidized – using atmospheric oxygen – above ground, coupled to the production of electricity. The concept includes making hydrogen sulphide directly in the reservoir and utilizing a microbial fuel cell design.

Most fossil fuel resources will be left stranded underground unless their environmental footprint is reduced to zero or near-zero, Larter predicted.

Upstream oil and gas GHG emissions currently account for about 15 per cent of emissions in Canada. In 2015, the entire energy sector (consisting of stationary combustion sources, transport and fugitive sources) emitted 587 megatonnes of GHGs, or 81 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Larter said the challenge with the SYZYGY project is to produce power at comparable rates of energy density to fossil fuels. The group is now doing feasibility scoping studies and is seeking industry partners.

Another challenge is to persuade the oil and gas industry to take a risk on new technologies, he said. “The oil and gas industry is very slow to take technology from invention to commercialization.”

Larter said in a Q&A session that the industry needs to be associated with transformation if it wants to attract personnel, especially the brightest young people. The industry “really has to push the frontiers” of discovery and go for cutting-edge advancements, not just incremental changes, he said.

Panelist Babatunde Olateju, manager, carbon capture and utilization at Alberta Innovates, said the provincial agency commissioned a study, released in November last year, by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the U.S., on deploying small, modular nuclear reactors in the oilsands to produce GHG emissions-free steam and electricity.

The study found that the nuclear reactor technology could replace the use of natural-gas fired power used to make steam at SAGD facilities, thereby significantly reducing GHG emissions, he said.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) range in size from five to 300 megawatts. They are easier to finance than conventional large reactors and have shorter construction timelines, Olateju said. The technology’s passive safety features mean human intervention isn’t required in the event of problems. SMRs are already used in such applications as submarines and icebreaker vessels.

Olateju said are several challenges with SMRs, including:

  • public perception and the need for education and dialogue with relevant stakeholders;

  • no commercial SMR yet exists on land;

  • technical complexities and supply chain issues;

  • management of radioactive waste; and

  • significant policy uncertainty.

It isn’t clear in Alberta if nuclear energy is part of the province’s clean technology portfolio, Olateju said. However, the number of applications to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for SMR deployment is increasing, and a technical demonstration project is needed, he added.

Panelist Jason Young, research associate in the Calgary Advanced Energy Storage and Conversion Research Technologies (CAESR-Tech) group at the University of Calgary, said the use of solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) in the oilsands could greatly reduce the industry’s GHG emissions. CAESR-Tech’s director is Viola Birss, professor of chemistry and Canada Research Chair (Fuel Cells and Related Clean Energy Systems) at UCalgary.

SOFCs can reduce the current cost of CO2 capture by about one-third, to $40 per tonne from $100 per tonne, Young said.

They also have several advantages compared with molten carbonate fuel cells, he said, including a smaller footprint onsite and capacity to operate at higher temperature, and can be ‘tuned’ to better match SAGD operations. SOFCs run with 80-per-cent fuel efficiency and produce CO2 that’s capture ready, he added.

California-based Bloom Energy is now manufacturing its “Bloom Box” (photo above) that provides 200 kilowatts of power, enough to meet the baseload needs of 160 average homes or an office building in roughly the footprint of a standard parking space, Young said.

“SOFCs should not be overlooked,” he said, adding that a five- to 10-kilowatt pilot plant is needed in Alberta.


Boosting investment in clean technology

COSIA’s Innovation Summit 2017 was presented with partners Alberta Innovates and Natural Resources Canada.

“Finding new ways to be innovative will be essential to the continued economic prosperity of Alberta,” says Laura Kilcrease (photo at left), CEO of Alberta Innovates. “This event not only showcases the great work being done to improve environmental performance in the oil sands – it is an important opportunity to bring key partners together to share new ways of thinking.”

Cécile Siewe (photo at left) director general for CanmetENERGY-Devon at Natural Resources Canada, said on the summit’s opening day that one aim of clean technology is to enhance public confidence in natural resources development.

The federal government’s goal under “Mission Innovation,” is to double the investment in clean energy research and development by 2020, to $80 million per year from $400 million, Siewe said.

In February, the Alberta and federal governments signed a memorandum of understanding on clean energy research and technology, to establish a framework for collaboration on research and innovation promoting “responsible and sustainable” development of oilsands and heavy oil. The MOU, which includes several “flagship initiatives,” is designed to:

  • focus the relevant components of the research and innovation system on the challenges of responsible and sustainable development of clean energy and energy innovation;

  • bring together the best expertise within the research and innovation system, including, but not limited to Natural Resources Canada, CanmetENERGY (Devon, Ottawa, Varennes) and Alberta Innovates;

  • enable other organizations in the research and innovation system to participate, such as post-secondary institutions, industry labs, innovative capacity of other government departments and consortia that relate to the objectives of this MOU;

  • draw on expertise and enabling technology platforms resident in other research and innovation system organizations;

  • maintain the world-renowned status of Alberta’s and Canada’s energy research and innovation capacity; and

  • work collaboratively with industry to achieve the outcomes that the Governments of Alberta and Canada desire for responsible sustainable oil sands development.

Long-terms goals of the MOU are to: support the transition of Alberta towards a “low carbon, circular economy,” and capitalize on opportunities to develop new technology products and services for global opportunities; support industrial growth and diversification; and enable the development and investment in large-scale clean tech projects.


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