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Innovator: Ian Gates and lower-emissions oil sands

University of Calgary scientist Dr. Ian Gates is developing a new approach to SAGD that could lower GHG emissions and costs.

In the late 1960s, while working on heavy oil research at Imperial Oil, Roger Butler first pondered the idea of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology. He later perfected the idea in the 1980s as the University of Calgary’s first Endowed Chair in Petroleum Engineering. In so doing, he introduced a radical new concept that would unlock massive bitumen deposits buried underground in Alberta, ultimately giving Canada the third largest oil reserves in the world.

Dr. Ian Gates, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, is following in Butler’s footsteps. Gates admires Butler’s achievement, and like Butler, he is seeking new, better ways to produce in situ resources. A  focus for Gates is improving SAGD technologies to use less energy. This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and should also lower production costs.

Like Butler, Gates got early industry exposure as an Imperial Oil researcher. Before joining the university in 2004, he studied new technologies, including the use of solvents, to produce bitumen more efficiently at Imperial’s Cold Lake operation.

Dr. Ian Gates in his laboratory at the University of Calgary. Photo credit: Jason Dziver

For much of his 13 years at the university, he has focused on heavy-oil recovery process design. Currently, Gates is part of a multi-disciplinary university team dedicated to finding sustainable, low-impact ways to harness unconventional hydrocarbon resources.

“With this research initiative, we want to be fairly aggressive in being innovative, with the goal to move solutions out to the field within two or three years,” Gates says of the program. The team’s work is funded by $75 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, and is being conducted in collaboration with industry partners.

Among Gates' projects is the development of a low-pressure method to extract shallow bitumen resources using lower energy intensity. The process—a type of SAGD arrangement—injects hot water through underground wells to mobilize bitumen buried between 70 and 100 metres deep. Gas is added to bring the resource to the surface. So far, initial small-scale field tests show energy intensity results less than half that of traditional SAGD. Plans are in the works to develop a larger field trial near Fort McMurray. At the same time, Gates is adapting the technology to reach deeper deposits.

“So far, initial small-scale field tests show energy intensity results less than half that of traditional SAGD.”

Gates’ team has more than 15 issued patents and others pending. He understands what’s required to stimulate innovative thinking that leads to breakthroughs. He says academic institutions, such as the University of Calgary, provide a fitting place for incubating new ideas.

“You have the creativity at the university, backed by passionate researchers, and industry’s ability to move new ideas into the field. There’s a natural marriage between academic institutions such as ours and industry to forge powerful new partnerships,” he says.

And in the pursuit of new innovations, Gates frequently looks back to the pioneering work of Butler for inspiration.

“A lot of the focus we have here at the university is to model the kind of applied thinking he represented—to look beyond fundamentals to provide real solutions.”

Learn more about Gates and his research here.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Ian Gates
    Ian Gates Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, University of Calgary