Five questions: with Bryan Helfenbaum

The executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons at Alberta Innovates speaks about progress on emissions-reduction technologies and value-added uses for bitumen.

Bryan Helfenbaum is the executive director of Advanced Hydrocarbons at Alberta Innovates, an innovation hub that facilitates innovations from funding to commercialization. Early in 2021, Energy Examined did a podcast with him to look into some of the research going on in Alberta aimed at lowering emissions and finding new, value-added uses for petroleum products. Innovation has continued to evolve over the past year.

Read more: PODCAST: How innovation can make cleaner natural gas and oil

1. Let’s start with cleaner hydrocarbon production. What’s happened over the past year in that space?

We’re working in three main areas:

  • Recovery Technologies – currently, AI is supporting projects and technologies that can be commercially deployed relatively quickly. One notable area is steam additives – similar to solvent-assisted steam assisted gravity drainage (SA-SAGD) which has already been extensively piloted by several oil sands in situ operators. The economics of SA-SAGD rely heavily on recovering the injected solvent, which comes back to the surface along with the bitumen – whereas steam additives are injected in very low concentrations and can increase production by five to 15 per cent without the need for recovery.
  • Methane Emissions Reduction – this continues to be a great story. The Canadian Emissions Reduction Innovation Network (CERIN) is working with Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) and the Natural Gas Innovation Fund (NGIF) to develop and test methane detection, monitoring, and mitigation technologies at controlled and live facilities. Many technologies have already been trialed with others getting underway; the test data will be accessible to other researchers and producers via a new public platform. There’s a high degree of collaboration, the industry is focused on achieving the targeted reduction of 45 per cent by 2025.
  • Digital Oilfield – Alberta Innovates’ Digital Innovation in Clean Energy (DICE) program is supporting the development and testing of a wide range of emerging digital technologies from artificial intelligence to process automation, drones to augmented and virtual reality – examining how these technologies could be applied to oil and natural gas operations to enhance efficiencies, which can lead to emissions reduction or other environmental improvements. An advantage of digital technologies is they’re typically low-capital and often lend themselves to quicker development to commercial scale.

2. How about innovative hydrocarbon products, especially ‘bitumen beyond combustion’?

Bitumen is primarily refined to produce transportation fuels – gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels. But bitumen has tremendous potential for generating materials that are not combusted, which is where 80 per cent of the emissions associated with bitumen actually occur. This move to creating materials instead of fuels could strongly support industry by developing new ways to use bitumen – at much higher value.

The most exciting of these non-combustion uses is to create carbon fibre from bitumen. Carbon fibre has limited use right now. It’s strong and lightweight, so you’ll find it in high-end sports equipment and wind turbine blades. The current feedstock for carbon fibre is expensive and thus a successful switch to a bitumen feedstock could open new and large markets.

AI launched the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge in 2020, which saw 19 teams testing ‘proof-of-concept’ – in other words, demonstrating at a lab scale their ability to produce carbon fibre from bitumen. In August 2021, in partnership with the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), we launched the second phase of the challenge, which funds 12 teams to scale-up and improve the quality of their carbon fibre. We anticipate a third phase in 2023, which will move to pilot-scale production.

Other non-combustion areas we’re supporting include activated carbon for a number of potential uses, and asphalt binder for making road surfaces. Alberta already produces some of the world’s highest-quality binder; we’re seeking ways to transport asphalt binder to growing markets in the U.S. and Asia. Activated carbon from bitumen feedstock is targeted to developing supercapacitors, an important component of the growing energy storage (advanced batteries) market.

3. In 2021, AI released a study that was jointly funded by your organization and Emissions Reduction Alberta, which demonstrated that innovation and advanced technologies are continuing to reduce emissions intensity in the oil sands. I understand you’ve embarked on a second study – can you elaborate?

This was a groundbreaking study released in December 2020, which confirmed that innovation and advanced technologies are continuing to reduce emissions intensity in the oil sands. We found that emissions intensity for oil sands production from the subject facilities was 14 to 35 per cent lower than a study published in 2018. Our study also found two emerging technologies, Modified Steam and Gas Push (eMSAGP) and Solvent-Assisted SAGD (SA-SAGD) are capable of further reducing emissions intensity by 14 and 19 per cent respectively. We’re now embarking on a second phase, with an expanded research team and more participating oil sands operators, facilities and new technologies.

Read more: Study highlights ongoing improvements in oil sands emissions

4. Also in 2021, several oil sands companies announced an alliance to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. How do you think they’ll achieve that goal – what technologies do you think they’ll employ?

Net zero recognizes where industry needs to go, it’s an important pathway for the industry and for Canada. The oil sands companies that are part of this alliance are seeking to deploy technologies – some developed through AI and our affiliate organizations, some through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), and some technologies are in-house and specific to individual companies. The level of collaboration among oil sands producers is unprecedented and sets a global standard that Alberta and Canada can be proud of.

As for which technologies may be deployed to achieve net-zero, carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is the backbone of the pathway. CCUS can harness expertise in Alberta, we also have some infrastructure and the right geology to effectively use CCUS as a means to reduce emissions.

What is Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS)?

Carbon capture utilization and storage infographic

5. It seems the oil and natural gas industry – oil sands in particular – is an easy target for activists and government policy aimed at decreasing emissions, yet the industry as a whole is already making significant progress. What do you think Canadians should know about the industry?

Canada has huge oil and natural gas resources that are developed under stringent regulations. As long as there’s global demand for these resources, Canadian products should be the global choice because our industry already demonstrates vision, strategy and responsible leadership. But as other energy sources become more reliable and cost-effective, we need to look at our natural resources in a different way; bitumen beyond combustion is an excellent example, as is blue hydrogen from Canadian natural gas. We can make the most of the resources we have while at the same time addressing global climate change issues.