The Petroleum Technology Research Centre (PTRC) may be Saskatchewan’s best-kept secret, although it’s been on the leading edge of emissions reduction research for more than 20 years.
The PTRC seeks to be “the incubator, accelerator and developer of research and innovation to reduce the carbon footprint and increase the production of subsurface energy.” In other words, the PTRC brings together academics, cleantech startups, oil and natural gas companies and government to create a robust network of research and technology developers to improve the environmental performance of natural gas and oil production.
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The centre was established in 1998 as a co-operative venture between the federal and Saskatchewan governments. At that time, Alberta was home to a great deal of research, much of it directed to reducing emissions in the oil sands industry. But Saskatchewan’s geology, production and other aspects of the oil and natural gas industry are different from Alberta, so the PTRC was set up to address specific conditions and needs, and to grow expertise within Saskatchewan’s research community. Today, the centre facilitates connections between universities and other research organizations, companies, governments and tech entrepreneurs.
Pioneering carbon capture
The PTRC has been on the leading edge of carbon capture and storage research, technology and operation for more than two decades. Carbon capture is now at the forefront of industry-wide emissions reduction, and the PTRC is well positioned to share successful technology and expertise, particularly around storage.
Erik Nickel is PTRC’s director of operations. He says, “In 1999, I was working with the Saskatchewan Geological Survey. Together with folks from PTRC, which was new at the time, we met with PanCanadian (now Cenovus) to look into a new technology they were considering for their oil field at Weyburn, about 70 kilometres north of the U.S. border.”
The proposed project: inject carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from a manmade source – a coal gasification plant in North Dakota – into depleted oil reservoirs at Weyburn and nearby Midale in Saskatchewan. Using a manmade CO2 source was a new idea. Existing injection projects such as the Sleipner gas field in Norway or the Denbury field in Texas were re-injecting naturally occurring CO2 from geologic formations but Weyburn was the world’s first project to inject CO2 from an industrial source.
Initially aimed at enhancing oil recovery in the Weyburn oil field (squeezing more oil from a mature reservoir by pushing the oil out with CO2), project proponents also saw the potential to reduce emissions by capturing and storing carbon underground, and an opportunity to research CO2 injection that led to an international program.
Research launched in 2000 and continued through 2012. The first phase, completed in 2004, sought to predict and verify that the Weyburn oil reservoir could securely and economically contain CO2. The second research phase resulted in recommendations for measuring, monitoring and verifying (MMV) stored CO2, and to encourage more geological CO2 storage on a worldwide basis.
A second PTRC carbon storage project called Aquistore grabs emissions from SaskPower’s Boundary Dam coal-fired electricity generation plant near Estevan, Sask. and injects that CO2 into a saline (salt water) zone some 3.4 km below the surface. The project started in 2014 – the first coal-fired power station in the world to successfully use carbon capture technology – and to date has prevented emission of about four million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, equivalent to a million cars.
This ongoing project has become the world’s most comprehensive full-scale geological field laboratory for CO2 storage. Industry and government partners in Japan, Korea, Australia, the United States, South Africa and the United Kingdom have been participating in the Boundary Dam project to gather data and develop their own CO2 storage projects. Aquistore has proven that CO2 storage is a viable option for emissions reduction in the oil and natural gas sector and for many other industries such as cement and steel, chemicals, and fertilizer manufacture.
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Getting more oil from old reservoirs
Since 1998 the centre has been facilitating enhanced oil recovery (EOR) research leading to demonstration projects, focused on the sustainable development of Saskatchewan’s difficult-to-access heavy oil reserves. Since 2013, the Heavy Oil Research Network (HORNET) has been funding millions of dollars into EOR projects to improve the efficiency and reduce emissions from heavy oil extraction. Here’s how.
EOR is widely used around the world to squeeze additional oil from a mature reservoir, by displacing oil trapped in tiny spaces with injected water or CO2. But every situation presents unique challenges including geology, reservoir characteristics and access to reliable volumes of CO2 for injection.
Some heavy oil production near Lloydminster, Sask. uses a technology called cyclic solvent injection, a process that injects both light hydrocarbons and CO2 into an oil reservoir to push out the thick, heavy oil. The CO2 is collected from other nearby in situ operations that inject steam that’s created by burning natural gas to heat water, which in turn creates emissions.
Through HORNET, PTRC researchers and producing companies are studying the suitability of these reservoirs for long-term storage of CO2, right down to the molecular level. Currently, HORNET approves between 10 and 15 projects annually, with an estimated funding value from the PTRC of $1.5 million. Most of the approved projects are conducted at the Universities of Regina, Saskatchewan, and Calgary, and at the Saskatchewan Research Council’s Energy Division.
A new horizon: geothermal heat
And here’s the ‘coolest’ project ever: a potential new application for natural geothermal heat.
Some saline (salt water) reservoirs in the Estevan area are very deep – up to 3,000 metres or more. The earth’s own energy heats the water in those deep reservoirs up to 120 degrees C, which would be great for use in heat-exchangers or other applications, but there’s a problem: the water is extremely salty, up to 30% (for comparison, seawater is about 3.5 per cent salt). As the hot water comes to the surface through a well, the water cools and salt comes out of the solution. Not only does the salt corrode pipes and other underground equipment, it’s also heavy.
“But what if we injected CO2 instead?” asks Erik Nickel. “The injected gas would pick up heat and come back to the surface, where we could ‘mine’ heat from the CO2 stream, then re-inject it. CO2 flows more easily than water and would not pick up salt form the deep reservoir.”
PTRC researchers are working with partners in Switzerland, the University of Alberta and engineering firm Siemens to model the potential project to determine whether a pilot project is feasible.
Working together: a unique approach
For decades, the natural gas and oil sector has been working to address emissions, with good results to date. However, highly technical solutions are costly to research, test, develop and install – working together is the answer. That’s the idea behind Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), and Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC).
In the same way, the PTRC fills a vital role in bringing together oil and natural gas companies, researchers, academics, and governments. Collaboration across the industry is essential for successfully reducing emissions.
“Alliances such as COSIA, PTAC, PTRC and others are essential for long-term research,” Nickel comments. “PTRC has more than 20 years of carbon capture data at Weyburn, nowhere else in the world has this level of experience – and we’re sharing what we’ve learned to make carbon capture better.”