Steven Bryant is a world leader in nanoparticle technology. For the past two decades, in academia and industry, he’s helped pioneer the use of nanoparticles for petroleum engineering applications. In 2014, he was recruited from the University of Texas in Austin to become the University of Calgary’s first Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs. Since then, he’s been busy coordinating nanotechnology research at the university and working with researchers on campus to explore new, sustainable ways of developing unconventional resources, especially Canada’s oil sands. Context recently spoke to Bryant to discuss how materials science and other innovations are opening up opportunities to produce more oil with less impact.
Q: How important is innovation to the oil and natural gas sector?
A: Without continuous innovation, the industry would be seriously challenged in maintaining a steady supply of oil and natural gas to meet demand. Global oil production has increased more than 2.5-fold over the last 50 years. To achieve this, a lot of engineers have been building and innovating behind the scenes. For example, in Canada, steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology has gone from a cool idea to a proven method that’s producing a million barrels of oil a day. It took a lot of work to make this technology happen, to demonstrate it could work and ramp it up commercially. The result has been huge for industry.
Q: Environmental innovation and improvements to reduce costs seem to be two major themes in the industry. Can you comment on this?
A: Well, they relate to all kinds of technology—not just oil and natural gas. We’ve got to meet the needs of society with less and less resource intensity. Today, the oil and natural gas industry has to maintain supply to match market demand because demand for oil and gas is not going away fast. At the same time, we have to be able to meet demand with less impact and less emissions. We need to rethink or improve our production processes. If we can make these processes more efficient, that’s a good thing—because it reduces cost and should also lower overall impacts to resources.
Q: How could this focus on reducing resource intensity shape innovation?
A: A lot of people are realizing we need to get more serious as an industry about advancing enhanced oil recovery techniques. Because it’s one way we can continue to meet energy demand by working from existing development and the same footprint. We know we’re not getting all the oil or gas we could from reserves. The use of nanomaterials could give us new tools to maximize production with less impact.
There is another trend related to reducing resource intensity, and that’s addressing the carbon dioxide (CO2) challenge. Increasingly the goal for industry and others will be to look for ways to produce oil in a way that not only mitigates emissions but creates negative emissions. Researchers at universities are looking at potential options, like bioenergy and carbon capture and storage [link to Context story], to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. A concept we’re starting to pursue at the University of Calgary is to look at how to convert the chemical energy in oil and gas into a different energy carrier that has no attached carbon.
Q: What are some other innovation trends you’re seeing?
A: We’re seeing researchers bring new ideas from different areas to come up with imaginative solutions. One of those areas is materials science. There are a lot of exciting applications you can create with nanoparticles to improve performance. We’re exploring ways at UCalgary to see how nanotechnology could help industry get more heavy oil out of the reservoir without having to inject more viscous fluids (like polymers) or with less need for steam.
Another new trend I’m seeing is growing interest in the use of sensor technologies and machine learning. These can be used to provide new ways of pattern recognition. In the healthcare field, medical professionals have been using high-frequency diagnostic imaging tools to “listen” for differences between healthy and diseased cells. Here in our university lab, we’re testing similar equipment to see if it can be used to detect how fluids behave in the reservoir during steam injection and fracturing stages, so we can identify opportunities for improvement.
Q: Have you observed changes to the approach to innovation itself in oil and gas?
A: In the past, a lot of innovation work was carried out in large research facilities owned by major oil companies. That doesn’t happen as much today. Today many operating companies rely on other institutions or third parties to carry out this research work. Increasingly universities, such as the University of Calgary, are looking for opportunities to partner with startup companies to take energy ideas that have been developed in the lab out to the field for testing.