Sometimes the best way to appreciate a place is to say goodbye to it for some time. Basil Perdicakis, senior research engineer with Suncor, discovered this lesson firsthand.
Perdicakis was raised in Alberta, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Calgary in 1998. He held roles with various local oil and gas-based engineering companies early in his career, but then yearned for a change.
“I wanted to try something a bit different, so when I had the opportunity, I left to do a PhD at the University of Waterloo,” recalls Perdicakis. He completed a PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2008, focusing on biochemical engineering research, as a contrast to oil and gas. He initially thought he would be a professor but realized the world of academia was not for him. He also discovered he missed home—both the city where he was raised and the industry at its heart.
“I had a good experience, but I wanted to come back to oil and gas. I realized this is where I want to work and make a difference,” says Perdicakis.
Since moving home, he’s been able to do just that. Now a senior research engineer at Suncor, he applies his advanced analytical skills to his thorough understanding of oil and gas operations to help develop new water and steam innovations for in situ oil sands operations.
“The group I’m in focuses on developing technologies to improve the overall sustainability of the oil sands industry,” says Perdicakis. “The reality is that it’s challenging to find technologies that are going to give an environmental improvement as well as an economic one.”
How the WTDC raises the bar on water innovation
Water is at the heart of many oil sands operations. In situ oil sands extraction uses high-temperature steam that is injected into the reservoir to melt bitumen. The water used in this process can be recycled and used to produce steam many times over, but oil sands operators are looking for ways to improve the recycling technology and reduce their water footprint.
Critical to improvement is the ability to test ideas at an industrial scale without impacting ongoing commercial activities. That’s exactly where a key project Perdicakis and his colleagues are working on, the Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC), comes in.
The approximately $150-million WTDC is a dedicated water testing facility where new technologies designed to improve water processes used in the oil sands are tested. For example, researchers in the oil sands are investigating technologies that would enable steam to be produced more efficiently: this would reduce the amount of energy needed, both lowering costs and GHG emissions.
The facility is being built on Suncor’s Firebag in situ site; Suncor is leading the project, which is a COSIA initiative with Canadian Natural, Devon Energy, Husky Energy, and Nexen working alongside as partners.
The WTDC will allow operators to test-drive more water technologies than each could on their own. By collaborating, they share the risks and costs, and can address multiple areas of water technology innovation. The results can be shared among the partners. This should accelerate the development and industry-wide implementation of new, market-driven technologies.
“There are actually not that many examples to draw from where an industry has collaborated on a project of this nature,” says Perdicakis. “What’s really exciting is that it will allow us to try new things faster than we’ve ever been able to do in the past.”
The WTDC is scheduled for mechanical completion by the end of this year. Commissioning and start-up is set for the first quarter of 2019. When completed, the WTDC will be a one-of-a-kind, world-class facility ready to test new water technologies at a commercial scale. The facility comes complete with pre-built testing equipment like a steam generator, and test separator, produced water cooler, and instrument loop.
As well, by tying into Firebag’s utility systems, technologies can be tested using process fluids with the same physical-chemical characteristics and elevated temperatures and pressures that occur in commercial SAGD in situ operations. This is a major factor in assessing whether the technologies being tested can be viable in an active oil sands operation.
Auto-body garage efficiency: A steady stream of projects
Perdicakis likens the WTDC to an auto-body garage where a car is driven in, tests are completed, adjustments and/or repairs are made, and the car is driven out for immediate use. The garage is then ready for the next vehicle to begin the process again.
“The WTDC has that capacity for new pilot projects,” he explains. “The new technology can come in, and the process and utility connections it needs are 10 to 20 feet away to test it. There’s also dedicated staff there to support the work.”
To prepare for pilot activities to begin immediately once the WTDC is ready in early 2019, Perdicakis and his project team are working to develop the engineering plans required for the first test year of projects.
“We’re getting into all the details, so to integrate all the technologies in the test plan pilots with the operations of the WTDC,” says Perdicakis.
Some of the initial projects being prepared include technologies aimed at developing new processes to improve the oil and water separation and new equipment to produce higher quality boiler feedwater.
While the first technologies are being tested, Perdicakis and his peers will continue the work of finding new technologies to put into the WTDC roster. In this way, the Centre is set to take a significant place in the province’s growing innovation infrastructure.
“Through COSIA, the industry has developed a lot of new technology development programs, at the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta, SAIT and NAIT,” he affirms. “We want to maintain a steady feedstock of technologies we can select from to test for commercial viability at the WTDC.”
Taking the long view: More than just lab work
Taking a long view of what is possible and then moving in to the finer aspects of how these innovations can be made to work is what Perdicakis enjoys most about his role.
“The perception is that we’re just people working in the lab, doing experiments,” explains Perdicakis. “But a very significant part of the role is also being engaged and stewarding the commercial side of the process and being on top of the environmental and economic cases for developing the technology. It’s exciting and challenging.”
Ultimately, it is the contributions that these technologies will make to improving and sustaining the oil sands industry that make Perdicakis proud that he came home.
“Going away for a while was beneficial for me because it confirmed how much I love living here,” he remarks. “When something is tough at my job, one of the things that keeps me going is that this project will improve the long-term future of the province. That’s important for me.”