Mike Tourigny of Acceleware. Photo by Jason Dziver

Radio frequency technology could revolutionize oil sands recovery

Mike Tourigny believes in the power of disruptive technologies; Acceleware’s use of RF heating for oil sands recovery could be just the ticket to ‘cleaner, better energy.’

Throughout his 25-year-plus marketing career, Mike Tourigny has dedicated himself to developing and commercializing disruptive technologies. Now he’s involved with what he calls the biggest project he’s worked on. At Calgary-based Acceleware, Tourigny is part of a group of 20 employees and contractors focused on advancing a patent-pending thermal oil sands recovery technology that uses radio frequency (RF) signals.

If Tourigny and the team at Acceleware are successful, the resulting product—called RF XL—could be transformative.

“With this technology, we’re working to fundamentally change the economics and environmental performance of in situ oil sands production,” says Tourigny, vice president of commercialization, RF heating, at Acceleware, a clean tech innovation firm founded in 2004.

The concept behind the technology is simple but bold: RF heating works like an “inside out” microwave. Transmitted underground, RF signals heat water in the formation. As this water turns to steam, it in turn heats nearby rock, lowering the viscosity of bitumen and allowing it to flow more easily into the horizontal well pairs.

RF energy and oil

Scientists have dreamed for decades of sending RF energy underground to produce oil. Pioneers experimented with the idea as early as the late 1940s and again in the 1960s and 1970s. But every time technological challenges (for example, early versions had inefficient transmitters) hindered the way to viable commercial development.

Acceleware’s approach is unique in that it is exclusively based on RF energy. (Elsewhere in Canada’s oil patch, an industry consortium involving Suncor Energy and others is developing a hybrid technique that combines electro-magnetic heating and hydrocarbon solvent injection.)

According to Tourigny, RF XL offers important benefits to oil sands producers including the fact that it can be easily added to existing SAGD operations. Also, the electrically driven, waterless technology virtually eliminates the need for water treatment facilities. Moreover, it requires no chemicals or solvents, involves a smaller surface footprint and could reduce GHG emissions by 50 per cent or more.

Acceleware’s approach

Tourigny says the company initially got interested in RF heating nearly a decade ago. The company had already acquired a growing reputation in the oil patch for its innovative imaging software. Based on this reputation and its own expertise (the company’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Michal Okoniewski, is a renowned expert in applied electrodynamics), the company was invited to a meeting with a U.S. oil multinational to look at past industry attempts to develop RF heating techniques.

Tourigny notes Acceleware executives decided to see if they could come up with a new, improved method of using RF technology in the extraction space. Photo by Jason Dziver.

The results of this meeting and further investigation on their own got Acceleware executives thinking about creating an entirely new approach to RF heating.

“It was clear RF technology could work to produce oil, but it could never make money as designed. There was a need for new, improved technology,” says Tourigny, who joined Acceleware in 2014 attracted by this new technology opportunity.

Starting in 2010, the company began to invest in R&D, with initial lab testing at the University of Calgary.  Encouraged by the results, Acceleware teamed up in 2016 with GE Global Research to develop electronics for their approach. This collaboration led to creation of a customized generator, using GE’s proprietary high-efficiency silicon carbide technology, to deliver RF signals at the surface. Next, Acceleware staff designed a unique transmission system, involving large coaxial cables, to carry RF energy down into the oil formation.

Acceleware’s technology uses RF waves to heat bitumen deposits so they can be recovered at the surface.

Awards and growing interest

As news of this effort has spread, this technology has attracted increasing interest and support. At the 2017 Global Petroleum Show in Calgary, the RF heating technology earned an emerging clean technology award. The company has also received $10 million in funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

“This funding support from ERA and others has been incredibly helpful, because it shows potential operators that this is a credible technology,” Tourigny says.

Meanwhile, development of RF XL continues to evolve. In the summer of 2018, Acceleware and GE successfully field tested the system’s RF generator. More recently, Acceleware has been working with different experts to fine-tune surface and downhole design. The company’s next task is to partner with an oil sands producer for a commercial-scale test.  But earlier announced plans for a commercial-scale pilot at Prosper Petroleum’s Rigel oil sands project have been held up by regulatory delays.

Tourigny, however, remains confident about the technology’s future. He and other Acceleware executives are actively pursuing oil sands partners to fast track a commercial-scale test of RF XL. They’re also investing time and effort as members of the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) to find new collaborative opportunities to achieve their commercialization goals.

“RF XL remains a very exciting technology project because it could change the way heavy oil and the oil sands industry works anywhere to create cleaner, better energy,” Tourigny says

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • MT
    Mike Tourigny vice president of commercialization, Acceleware