Jingyi (Jacky) Wang. Photo courtesy University of Calgary

Innovating cleaner hydrocarbons: U of C’s Global Research Initiative

Canadian university research group takes global approach to find breakthrough technologies that lower greenhouse gas emissions from oil and natural gas production.

What if Canadians could produce the world’s cleanest natural gas and oil with close to zero carbon emissions? It would be a way to solve two seemingly opposed challenges: growing global demand for energy and climate change.

The question of low carbon oil and natural gas is one that’s been on the mind of Ian Gates a lot these days. Gates, an engineer at the University of Calgary, heads up the institution’s Global Research Initiative (GRI) in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources.

The Global Research Initiative

The GRI was launched four years ago after the Canada First Research Excellence Fund awarded the university, in partnership with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), a grant of $75 million.  Their mandate: significantly reduce the carbon footprint of unconventional resource development and contribute to a climate-neutral energy system.

Dr. Ian Gates leads a group studying ways to reduce carbon emissions from oil and gas development. Photo courtesy University of Calgary

It’s not just the dollars involved that make this program important. It’s the stakes—the attempt to accelerate breakthrough innovations to help Canada’s oil and natural gas industry significantly cut its carbon footprint.

And Gates knows it, as a veteran researcher who’s consulted with many of the industry’s leading oil and natural gas companies. And as a scientist, who before joining the university 16 years ago, worked as a researcher in industry, first at 3M and later in Imperial Oil’s oil sands department. He’s well positioned to marry the university’s strengths in terms of basic research, creativity and ideation with industry’s focus on ensuring innovations are relevant to the market and field deployable.

Today, Gates is pushing for the University of Calgary GRI to be a major vehicle that enhances the university’s reputation as a hub of global energy research while making a real difference to industry’s environmental performance.

“Our priority at the GRI is to focus on converting what we are doing in university labs into industry-based solutions,” says Gates. “With the way the world is going and the concern about carbon emissions on the environment, especially in Alberta with the amount of oil and natural gas we produce, we must show that we can deliver these products more cleanly.”

Today there are approximately 270 researchers involved in this wide-ranging and ambitious program that is focused on solutions to three challenges: Producing heavy oil and bitumen with less carbon; improving tight oil and natural gas recovery; finding ways to convert and store carbon dioxide.

Multiple approaches and technologies

One team, for example, is exploring additives that reduce the surface tension between oil, sand and water interfaces in the reservoir. The application of these surface-active agents could enhance the movement of oil through rock pores, and cut down the energy (and correlated emissions) needed for oil recovery by as much as 25 per cent compared to today’s steam-intensive methods.

“The idea is to combine hot water and use the magic of materials to further mobilize and accelerate the production of bitumen underground,” says Hossein Hejazi, an associate professor in chemical and petroleum engineering, and one of the project’s lead investigators.

Hossein Hejazi is investigating how materials that reduce surface tension can help move oil underground using less energy, and creating fewer GHG emissions. Photo courtesy University of Calgary.

Meanwhile, another group is using sophisticated modelling to optimize CO2 injection techniques—an approach that could sequester CO2 while enhancing sustainable recovery from shale reservoirs.
Researchers are also advancing technologies that could result in truly transformative changes to the way energy is produced.

Gates and research associate Jacky Wang, for instance, have discovered a way to turn existing oil and gas reservoirs into hydrogen mines. Instead of extracting oil, a combustion reaction is initiated underground, converting the oil and water in the reservoir into hydrogen gas which is collected at the surface. (Hydrogen is an emissions-free, versatile fuel source that can be used to power cars and fuel cells.)

What if oil reservoirs could be transformed into hydrogen mines, leading to emissions-free hydrogen fuel used to power cars and fuel cells? Jacky Wang (pictured here) and Gates are investigating this breakthrough possibility. Photo courtesy University of Calgary.

This approach would leave the carbon portion of the hydrocarbon underground. Currently Gates and Wang are working with Proton Technologies, a Calgary startup, to field test this possibly revolutionary technology. “If you can get hydrogen from both hydrocarbons and water, you have a massive hydrogen storage system underground—one that provides another potential energy future for oil reservoirs,” says Gates.

Collaboration and the final mile

From the start, creating a program of this scope has depended on strong partnerships both locally and globally to deliver results.

In Calgary, GRI researchers are working with industrial and chemical engineers at SAIT to create scaled-up technology prototypes, using SAIT’s dedicated facilities for product development. Currently, for example, they’re building a five-barrel-a-day pilot facility that transforms bitumen into small pellets that can be moved by road, rail or ship.

SAIT’s Rick Tofani helps test breakthrough ideas through scaled-up projects that see if they’ll work in the real world. Photo courtesy SAIT.

“We’ve teamed up with the university to develop proof-of-concept prototypes and take these projects to the next scale size. This is a great example of how two institutions can work together in a complementary fashion,” says Rick Tofani, SAIT’s director of applied research and innovation services.

Gates and the GRI are also working closely with their academic counterparts up the road at the University of Alberta (UofA). (The UofA also received a $75 million grant in 2016 through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund; they’ve implemented a similarly ambitious Future Energy Systems program. The two institutions are collaborating on nine joint research projects and together have more than 400 experts engaged in energy research.

As well, GRI organizers have secured major research and development sites internationally. They’ve launched energy research, education and training projects in China, Israel and Mexico. Each site is positioned around the globe in areas that have significant unconventional oil and natural gas resources and the opportunity for beneficial collaboration. For example, the GRI has taken a leadership role in promoting innovative research with scientists in China in mutually relevant areas like enhanced recovery from shale hydrocarbons.

“There’s been a huge amount of collaboration issues that are common to both Canada and China with respect to unconventional oil and natural gas resources. Both countries believe in cleaning up the resource and the need to make recovery more cost-effective,” Gates says.

Leading the way into the future

From talking to Gates, there’s a clear sense the GRI is contributing to the University of Calgary’s growing reputation at home and abroad as a hub of energy research. Today the number of GRI’s external partners has reached more than 40 and continues to grow. Delegations of foreign academics and government officials frequently visit the campus to meet with GRI researchers and learn more about their projects.

Still, there’s a realization by Gates that more must be done—especially to engage industry more fully in the GRI.

Over the last year and a half Gates and his colleagues have stepped up efforts to meet with industry groups like Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) to explore potential collaboration.

“We’ve been carrying out lots of discussion with industry associations and companies to better understand their challenges. We’re learning more about what companies need and how they can deploy our technologies,” Gates says.

This message—and this openness to greater collaboration—is resonating with industry leaders. There’s growing awareness of the university’s research capabilities and a keen interest in developing closer working relationships.

James Dunn of Imperial Oil believes academia and industry can work together to solve environmental challenges. Photo courtesy Imperial.

Last year, for instance, James Dunn, Imperial Oil’s director of sustainable technology integration, helped to organize a visit by GRI students and researchers to Imperial Oil’s Calgary research facility. Here, university staff shared GRI updates and talked science with Imperial’s researchers.

“Initiatives like the GRI are extremely important. They augment industry research and offer up the potential for collaboration. We really need to get university innovators involved in tackling industry problems at the early conceptual stages,” says Dunn, who is also chair of the technology enablement committee for the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), an industry-led network focused on accelerating technology development across the oil and natural gas sector.

Over at COSIA, the industry alliance has also been taking steps to build closer ties. It’s assigned a senior technical advisor to meet regularly with GRI organizers. It’s also actively supporting Gates in his plans to organize an industry advisory committee, involving COSIA, companies and other agencies, to provide feedback on GRI projects. This committee is expected to begin meeting in the fall of 2020.

Matt McCulloch of COSIA, an oil sands industry alliance focused on collaborative solutions to environmental challenges credits the GRI with aligning academic research with real-world needs. Photo courtesy COSIA.

“University collaboration with industry has been going on for a long time. But what’s particularly important about the GRI is that it is enhancing structured collaboration. It’s aligning the work researchers do with industry priorities,” says Matt McCulloch, COSIA’s director of its GHG environmental priority area.

This growing recognition of the GRI’s importance is welcome news to Gates.

“At the end of the day, we want to have impact—not just in writing papers and producing well-trained students, but in getting industry to pick up our technology development to create lower carbon energy,” Gates says.

To that end, the GRI is certainly well on its way. As this major undertaking evolves to create relevant research and real-world industry solutions, this university is strengthening the impact its researchers will have on our energy future.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Hossein Hejazi Associate Professor at Dept. of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, University of Calgary
  • Ian Gates Professor (Chem&Petrol Eng),Director Global Research Initiative Energy, EnCana/Pet.Soc. Endowed Chair at UCalgary
  • Jingyi Jacky Wang Research Engineer at University of Calgary
  • James Dunn Director, Sustainable Technology Integration, Imperial
  • MM
    Matt McCulloch Former Director, GHG environmental priority area, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, now Vice-President, Clean Technology and Innovation, at Exergy Solutions
  • Rick Tofani Director, Applied Research and Innovation, SAIT