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How nanotechnology could reduce oil sands carbon footprint

University of Calgary scientists research imaginative ways to extract oil with less environmental impact.

By developing processes using nanoparticles,  Steven Bryant and his team of University of Calgary researchers hope to find ways to recover more oil while reducing—and potentially eliminating—the carbon footprint of extraction.

“We’re combining materials science to come up with new, imaginative ways of getting the oil out of the ground,” says Bryant, the university’s first Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs.

The team, for instance, is investigating the use of nanoparticles to recover more heavy oil without having to increase injection of heavy fluids (polymers). Another project is looking at ways to design ionic liquids (salts that exist in a liquid state at ambient conditions) to recover bitumen at in situ conditions without the need for steam. Longer term they’re studying how to convert the chemical energy in petroleum molecules to a zero-carbon energy carrier. The aim is to carry out this conversion within the reservoir, bringing the carbon-free carrier to the surface and leaving oxidized carbon underground.

“This work is spawning new ideas and new tools that could help to increase oil recovery with much less environmental impact,” he says.