PTAC: Nurturing oil and natural gas innovation

PTAC’s Soheil Asgarpour explains how his organization helps innovators develop oil and natural gas technologies to improve operations and reduce environmental impact.

Bringing new inventions into the real world is never easy. As Thomas Edison once commented, it takes perseverance—and lots of it. That’s just as true today. Innovators at small start-ups must hunt down capital, aggressively win over backers and work persistently to build a case for their technology. It’s a tough game, especially in the oil and gas industry, where new technologies need to be shown to fill a need and be effective under real-world operating conditions.

Soheil Asgarpour of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada helps connect industry to innovator entrepreneurs to solve oil and natural gas challenges. Photos by Jason Dziver.

“Technology providers will come up with a great idea, but often they’ll struggle to get it tested in the field, because they cannot secure funding or host sites for this work. Getting past these hurdles can be really difficult,” says Soheil Asgarpour, president of Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC).

Asgarpour knows a thing or two about the challenges faced by small innovation firms in the energy business. His non-profit organization works with many innovators, frequently extending a helping hand to promising start-ups and their technologies. In fact, since its founding 21 years ago, PTAC has provided a central gathering place for hundreds of technology providers, oil and gas producers, academia, government organizations, and investors to collaborate and advance new technologies.

“We’re strong believers in supporting market-driven technologies,” says Asgarpour, who’s headed up the agency since 2007. He has more than three decades of experience in the energy sector, either as a senior government official or an executive working for large oil and gas producers.

How PTAC supports this market for technology is unique. One method is technology information sessions: a popular forum where innovation companies gauge interest in their inventions by pitching their ideas and soliciting feedback from industry experts. Successful pitches can lead to funding or joint industry projects (JIPs) and field pilots at producers’ operations.

How PTAC Works

PTAC acts as matchmaker, facilitator, project manager, and even funder (it may contribute up to 15 percent in seed money to help move projects forward). A portion of the projects are supported through the Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund (AUPRF), a research and development program sponsored by industry and managed by PTAC.

“A big way we help is by bringing together the different players to form project consortiums,” says Asgarpour, in describing PTAC, which draws from a membership base of more than 200 upstream producers, service and supply companies, government agencies and academic institutions.

So far, the organization has been instrumental in launching over 500 technology projects through consortiums and JIPs (Joint Investment Projects). Right now, PTAC is running a roster of nearly 100 projects. These span all of its priority areas, which include: managing industry’s environmental footprint, improving oil and gas recovery, creating operating savings or finding ways to create value-added products.

“Over the past several years, PTAC has facilitated and managed projects with hundreds of small- and medium-sized technology companies. In many cases, the opportunity has been to look for technology solutions that can kill two birds with one stone—reducing both costs and environmental impacts at the same time,” Asgarpour explains.

Making a Difference: Cost and Environmental Footprint

A recent review of 14 PTAC-supported technology projects—including, for instance, engine management systems, vent gas capture equipment, solar-powered pumps and new software platforms—found that these projects are helping producers save millions in operating costs and achieve GHG reductions that are the equivalent of taking more than 160,000 cars off the road each year.

As the industry picture continues to evolve, PTAC is working to keep pace. Last year, it focused project activities on methane and GHG emissions, as new emission reduction regulations come into play in Alberta and elsewhere. In October, it established a network of producers and technology firms that’s studying more than 20 different methane-reduction technologies. And in November, PTAC announced it’s partnering with the federal government and others on a multi-million-dollar initiative to support research aimed at improving the industry’s ability to detect and reduce methane emissions during production.

“We hope to make PTAC a hub for Canadian JIP initiatives related to methane emission management,” Asgarpour says.

A key focus for PTAC will be to remain one of the industry’s strongest technology champions. It’s begun hosting free technology workshops to share best practices with small oil and gas producers. It’s also taken an active founding role in the Clean Resource Innovation Network, a new collaborative of industry players that’s looking for ways to advance new technologies and help industry prepare for a low-carbon economy.

“We want to continue to do our part in helping more producers, more technology providers and more partners get engaged in expanding our industry’s innovation ecosystem,” says Asgarpour.

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