PODCAST: How innovation can make cleaner natural gas and oil

Bryan Helfenbaum of Alberta Innovates takes on ‘advanced hydrocarbons’ in a quest to lower emissions and reduce environmental impacts from natural gas and oil production.


Bryan Helfenbaum is the executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons at Alberta Innovates, an innovation hub that facilitates innovations from funding to commercialization.

Bryan speaks with Energy Examined host Leighton Klassen, discussing some of the work going on at Alberta Innovates, including key developments that’ll improve environmental performance in Alberta’s natural gas and oil industry, economic opportunities like the creation of carbon fibre feedstocks from bitumen, and a recent study that shows how oil sands facilities are continuing to lower per-barrel greenhouse gas emissions.

Transcript of podcast:

Leighton: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Energy Examined podcast, the podcast that discusses the issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas sector with the insiders in the know. I’m Leighton Klassen. Today, I’m joined by Bryan Helfenbaum. He’s the executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons in the Clean Resources division of Alberta Innovates. He works with industry, academia, government and other stakeholders to achieve Alberta’s 2030 targets on hydrocarbon value addition and GHG reduction. Bryan, welcome to Energy Examined.

Bryan: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Leighton: Your organization, Alberta Innovates, calls itself Alberta’s innovation engine. Tell me more about what it does.

Bryan: Sure. So, Alberta Innovates is a provincial Crown corporation and we span the full continuum of innovation from discovery all the way to industry use and commercialization. We provide funding programs, advice, connections, technical expertise and applied research services through our two subsidiaries InnoTech Alberta and C-FER Technologies to stimulate and grow research and innovation across Alberta. And, as you point out at the beginning, we’re agnostic to who we work with. We support entrepreneurs, industry, academics, anyone innovating in energy, health, food, fibre, clean and emerging tech.

Leighton: OK, and one of the areas of focus for Alberta Innovates is to develop cleantech solutions for our province’s oil and gas industry. Can you talk a little bit about why hydrocarbon cleantech is important for the industry and its future?

Bryan: Sure, that’s a big question. Obviously, Canada has significant natural resources in hydrocarbons, and historically, this has generated very significant value and prosperity for communities across the country. In addition to the resources themselves, our country has also invested a lot in hard assets and human expertise. But as we look at the landscape, all signs are showing a shifting towards a lower carbon future. We see the rise of ESG. We see capital filters being deployed — Blackrock is an example. And we’re starting to hear net-zero declarations from many players within Canada’s oil and gas industry. While the speed of change can be debated, I don’t think the direction of change can anymore. So, hydrocarbon cleantech provides an opportunity to not just preserve value of our resources, but to increase that value and hopefully change our image from rather than being the global scapegoat when it comes to the petroleum sector, can we become the preferred supplier by embracing hydrocarbon cleantech?

Leighton: You’re the executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons. Can you tell me a little bit more about your role and why you got involved in this kind of work, which is fascinating?

Bryan: Yeah. So, I started my career in industry. I spent 20 years working with Imperial Oil and Devon Energy in a variety of different roles. My background academically, though, I have degrees in environmental engineering and an MBA specializing in energy management and sustainability. So, I’ve spent my career always pushing for new clean innovation ideas. As a young engineer, I initiated projects to eliminate freshwater use in fracking in my jurisdiction; to convert our vehicle fleet from diesel to compressed natural gas; and even a wind power project. My last few years in industry, I had the privilege of leading Devon Canada’s technology and innovation team. And in that role, I also got to represent our company at a number of external collaborations like COSIA, CRIN — Clean Resource Innovation Network — and others. And I had this exposure, as well as starting to work more with people at Alberta Innovates, Emissions Reduction Alberta, Sustainable Development Technologies Canada, NRCAN, etc. And I was really excited and passionate to work with many people that had similar views and similar desire to have this broader impact. And so, it was that desire to increase my influence that necessitated my move from the private sector to the public sector into my current role about three years ago.

And I’ll say it’s basically relinquishing a degree of control because I do miss having my hands on the wheel and actually executing projects directly, but able to really expand my influence overall and look at opportunities through a broader lens than I was able to within industry. And so, as the executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons, we have two programs under that portfolio. The first is cleaner hydrocarbon production, which includes recovery technologies, methane emissions reduction and digital oilfield. And the second program is dubbed Innovative Hydrocarbon Products and includes partial upgrading, bitumen beyond combustion and natural gas value-add.

The remainder of my division of clean resources includes a lot of other really exciting areas: Cleantech Group; we have environmental innovation; smart agriculture and food; and bio industrial materials. So, a really broad, really exciting area. Personally, I get to wear a couple of extra hats as well. I’m currently the theme lead for one of CRIN’s theme areas in Low Emissions Value-Add Products. I’m a fellow with the Energy Futures Lab and I’m a chair of the Canadian Emissions Reduction Innovation Network. But honestly, none of this happens without an incredible team of passionate and knowledgeable experts that we have on my team. And they hail from industry, from start-ups and from academia.

Leighton: You’ve obviously done some of this work even before you came to Alberta Innovates, which is interesting, kind-of had a head start on it. You spoke about some the projects. Can you tell me a couple that sort-of stand out — an example or two that have been really successful in helping reduce emissions?

Bryan: Yeah, so these are at different scales and different sizes. One, of course, that is fairly well-known is solvent-assisted SAGD. Alberta Innovates and especially our subsidiary, InnoTech, have been working in this space and developing it for a long time, working at some of lower TRL [technology readiness level] opportunities a while ago to supporting some larger scale pilots more recently. We’ve heard a declaration of the first commercial project by Imperial Oil, but unfortunately that’s on the shelf right now in light of the current landscape.

Through the Canadian Emissions Reduction Innovation Network, which I have the privilege of chairing, we’ve connected dozens of academic government research and industry test facilities basically to very rapidly test and validate technologies that relate to emissions, methane emissions reduction, to detect, to monitor and mitigate and be able to rapidly validate and deploy them. And then we just in this last year, we ran a program focused on digital. We called it DICE: The Digital Innovation and Clean Energy program, and we funded 17 really great projects. And some of them are even wrapped up already given the much faster cycle time of digital.

Galatea is a great local company that has developed a waste reduction optimization software. Exergy, another Calgary-based great company, we’re working on a project with them on augmented reality, virtual reality and then PTAC, Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada is working on drones beyond visual line of sight with industry. And so, all of these have very significant impacts on emissions reduction.

Leighton: Yeah, it sounds like it and I do want to bring up a particular study that was funded by your organization and Emissions Reduction Alberta, which was released in December 2020, confirms that innovation and advanced technologies are continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity in the oil sands. So, can you tell me, I know this was a big one, what are some of the findings of the study?

Bryan: Yeah, indeed. This was a very significant piece of work. It’s difficult to summarize quickly. But, you know, according to the summary, according to the study findings, upstream greenhouse gas emissions intensity for oil sands production is 14 to 35 per cent lower than a study that had just been published in 2018.

The study also looked at two emerging or really near commercial technologies, which were enhanced modified steam and gas push, or EM SAGP developed by MEG Energy and solvent-assisted SAGD, developed by Imperial Oil, but looking at other — also being deployed by other operators. And these two technologies are capable of further reducing emissions reduction intensity by 14 and 19 per cent, respectively.

And so, a very significant improvement compared to many of the previous studies. In fact, the study results were within one to four per cent of company reported emissions. And so overall, I mean, what gets me excited and got a lot of attention from media is it showed that these large oil sands projects’ carbon intensity actually competes with the global average.

Now, it’s a bit of a loaded statement. So, there are two caveats to that. Number one, not every oil sands project is the same. And certainly, people on either side can cherry pick and you can take a top tier oil sands project and compare it against a poor California thermal project. Likewise, you can take a poorly performing SAGD project and compare it against a very efficient project.

But this is on average, these large projects that we looked at, which comprise a material amount of the overall in situ oil sands production, compare very well against the global average. The other thing I’ll need to mention that the, if the academics were here, they would pipe up, is that a rigorous comparison can’t really be done because in every study the models are going to be a little bit different. Models are always being honed and enhanced. And it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison. But overall, certainly these results were very compelling.

Leighton: I’d like to just kind-of build on that. I mean, it shows that although not exact and projects vary like you mentioned, it still gives a pretty clear, poignant picture of what what’s being done in terms of emission reduction, correct?

Bryan: That’s right.

Bryan: Now I understand and you kind-of touched on this, but there’s an element of transparency in how emission reduction data is presented to the public. So, what can you tell me about this particular aspect alone and its significance?

Bryan: So, you know, when it comes to these kinds of studies, there’s a couple of very important aspects to them. One is transparency, and hence you see the use of open-source models often being taken and secondly is access to data. And this is where it gets a little bit tricky because the people with the best access to the data itself are the industry operators. A reliance on public data gives a lot less granularity and you don’t have those insights.

But, you know, direct industry sponsorship of a study can really taint, you know, the optics of that study and will cause some stakeholders to question the credibility of it no matter what it says, rightly or wrongly. And so, what was done here to try to achieve a balance was that the study was performed by researchers from three different universities, the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto and Stanford University in the U.S. And they had full academic freedom and the study was paid for, was paid by government agencies, not industry.

So, Alberta Innovates and Emissions Reduction Alberta co-sponsored the study, but industry data and industry representatives were made available to the researchers so that they could understand and digest the data and work with those operators to understand anomalies and why they happened. And those insights are so helpful to the academics. And, in fact, the open-source models they used, OPGEE [oil production greenhouse gas emissions estimator] and PRELIM [Petroleum Refinery Life-Cycle Inventory Model] were improved as a result of the study. And the result has been so positive, we’re actually now initiating a phase two of this project with even more facilities and even more technologies to be evaluated.

Leighton: OK, and what other areas of oil and gas production cleantech are you focused on?

Bryan: So, we certainly have a very broad portfolio here. As we talked a bit about, we are interested in cleaner extraction methods and we do have projects in electromagnetics and solvents and many other aspects as well. Carbon capture, utilization and storage remains a core area. Partial upgrading and bitumen beyond combustion, as I mentioned before, biofuels, methane conversion to hydrogen or even single cell proteins. And then just a wealth of opportunities in well site micro-grids, energy efficiency projects, water recycle reduction, tailings, land use reduction. Right, so there’s so many aspects to oil and gas cleantech that we’re involved in and quite excited about.

Leighton: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You guys are definitely busy.

Bryan: Yeah, that’s right.

Leighton: Now I know your focus of course is on innovations that can benefit Albertans and our economy, but when it comes to coming up with ideas partnering with innovators, you’ve developed, I think, a fairly wide approach, working with groups and organizations not only in other provinces, but from other countries. Could you comment on that?

Bryan: Sure. So, our primary concern is indeed technologies that have a commercial impact within Alberta. And we do want to grow human capacity as well. That is part of our mandate. But we recognize that we aren’t always the experts in everything. And a good example, under our Bitumen Beyond Combustion program, we’re working on carbon fibre opportunities. And Alberta has a lot of experts when it comes to bitumen chemistry and asphalt teams characterization. But carbon fibre fabrication and use it is not something that we have a lot of experts in. We have a handful, but not that many. And so, we recognize that we really needed to engage the broader global community. And so, we’re just right now wrapping up phase one of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge and we funded 19 different researchers and several of them are from Alberta. But we also funded researchers in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere across Canada, several institutions in the United States and as far as Australia. Also, under that BBC program, we are working with a researcher at Queens who is an expert in asphalt binder, validating that Athabasca-derived asphalt binder is actually among the best quality in the world. We work with applicants from B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia. Typically, we’re enticing them to build projects in Alberta and we’ve had a lot of success there. And we provide leadership and national collaborations like CRIN or the National Partial Upgrading Committee. And, you know, I’ll say the small dollars that we end up distributing outside of Alberta is dwarfed by the amount of federal funding that we bring in. So just our division’s partnerships in the last few years have brought in more than $200 million from the federal government through their agencies at NRCAN, SDTC, and CERC, etc. So, it’s really important that we continue to have these strong relationships with our federal counterparts and we work really well with them and have very good alignment.

Leighton: So, looking at I mean, you guys are involved in a lot of different projects, a lot of different areas. Can you speak about kind-of in the next maybe year or so and you have alluded to some of the projects, but if you could comment on sort-of what’s going to really excite you in terms of building a sustainable Alberta oil and gas industry for the future and some of these projects in the immediate future that are quite exciting from your perspective.

Bryan: Yeah, so it’s always hard to predict exactly when we’ll see large-scale commercialization, but in terms of areas that I’m particularly excited about right now, I mean, one that’s very topical because we’re about to launch phase two of our challenge is indeed that bitumen beyond combustion carbon fibre opportunity. You know, this is really trying to turn the concept on its head. The asphaltene content in bitumen has always made us vulnerable as a feedstock for fuels. And so, BBC is looking at, well, how about non fuels? If we’ve got, going to have 10 billion people on the planet by the end of the century, then there’s going to be significant demand for materials. And most of the materials, especially those of the future, like carbon fibre, carbon nanotubes, graphene, are very carbon intensive. So, can we use that molecular carbon intensity to be a strategic advantage? And so, you know, we just wrapped up phase one of the grand challenge. We’ve had multiple institutions demonstrate the proof of concept to actually spin asphaltene from bitumen into carbon fibre. And we’re just now launching the next phase to scale up and start to meet commercial specifications. And so, that’s a really exciting opportunity that has gotten a lot of attention. And I’d be remiss not to also mention hydrogen. Alberta, Canada, has been recognized as potentially one of the lowest cost sources of hydrogen, namely blue hydrogen in particular. And there’s a lot of work underway to turn the greater Edmonton area into Canada’s first hydrogen node and then to basically build out from there to add additional hubs and then start to connect them together. And so, this is a really exciting space for many kinds of opportunities.

Leighton: OK, and just for our listeners who might not be too familiar with it, could you just briefly explain what the Grand Challenge is?

Leighton: Sure. So, we launched the Grand Challenge a year ago. It actually has three phases to it. And it is fundamentally to develop carbon fibre from bitumen to meet commercial specifications. And so, this would allow — and I’ll say the concept here is we believe that we can reduce the cost of carbon fibre in half. And right now, carbon fibre is a bit of a specialty material. You think of it in your bike or your golf clubs or your hockey stick. If you’re lucky enough to drive a high-end BMW, its biggest market right now is actually in wind turbine blades. But, you know, you don’t see it in your Honda Civic, you don’t see it in reinforcing concrete because it’s just too expensive right now. And almost half the cost of carbon fibre is its feedstock, which is something called polyacrylonitrile. But we believe that we can switch that feedstock to bitumen-sourced asphaltenes, which are a tenth of the cost of that polyacrylonitrile, and that can drive the cost down. And if this comes to fruition, we would see the market for carbon fibre do a 10 times multiple overnight as a myriad of new applications would come to bear.

Leighton: Well, I know you’ve spoken a lot of what the province is doing in terms of innovation. I’ll just leave it with — this is going to be a tough one to answer, but I’ll ask it anyway. If you wanted the public to know, when it comes to Alberta and the oil and gas industry in terms of what it’s doing, innovation-wise, what would you want the public to know?

Bryan: Oh, man, I mean, I think we need a separate podcast to cover all that, but you know, fundamentally, first of all, for people here, they need to know that there’s so much activity going on. You know, our province is blessed with so many smart and passionate entrepreneurs working independently or within larger organizations. And it’s easy to feel pessimistic some days when you read the paper and hear about another large layoff somewhere. But there are so many exciting grassroots going up all over in terms of really exciting innovation. And, you know, for others outside of Alberta, they need to understand that industry is incented, right, to go down this road. Reducing emissions means improved energy efficiency, which means better profitability. So, notwithstanding the carbon levies and ESG movement and everything else, you know, industry is motivated to look for these opportunities to reduce emissions and drive up this cleantech opportunity. And lastly, you know, I’ve talked a lot on this on this podcast about the technical innovations that are going on. But just as exciting are the many business innovations that are underway. And we need this. We need supply chain innovation. We need social innovation. Some of the unicorns that have come out of Alberta lately have been more on the social innovation side, thinking of Benevity there. And so, there’s really a lot going on, a lot of excitement, digital in particular, with its low capital intensity and rapid cycle time. There’s really so many places to play right now when it comes to innovation in this space.

Leighton: Well, yeah, there’s so much to talk about, and I’m sure we’re going to talk again because I think it’s fascinating what your organization is doing. And, you know, you’re doing some great things for innovation, so we’ll have to speak again. So, thanks very much, Bryan, for being on the show.

Bryan: Yeah. Thank you for the opportunity.

Leighton: And that was our conversation with Bryan Helfenbaum. He’s the executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons in the Clean Energy division of Alberta Innovates. Stay tuned for our next Energy Examined podcast. And if you like this episode, please share it with a friend and make sure you subscribe on whatever podcast network you use. For more stories and their views on Canada’s energy industry, check out our website context.capp.ca. See you next time.


In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Bryan Helfenbaum Executive Director of Advanced Hydrocarbons in the Clean Resources Division of Alberta Innovates