The Alliance New Ways group, which brings together Alberta’s largest oil producers, announced Thursday the winner of their competition to find technologies that could be used to reduce the use of steam produced using natural gas, naturally occurring in the oil sands.
The company Impossible sense energya Calgary-based subsidiary of the American space exploration company Impossible sensationwon the $45,000 prize for its Sherloc optical imaging technology used on the robot Persistence to try to find traces of life and carbon compounds on the surface of the red planet.
According to Ariel Torre, co-founder and president ofImpossible sense energythis technology can also detect precise amounts of carbon-based solvents in the oil extraction process.
According to the New Pathways Alliance, the increased use of solvents offers the potential to reduce, if not eliminate, the need for steam generation, an energy-intensive process, in steam injection separation operations.
Solvents – such as butane and propane – occur naturally in oil sands bitumen and are used as a much more energy-efficient alternative to steam to help the bitumen liquefy enough to flow to a production well.New Paths Alliance said in a statement.
Oil sands companies currently use vast amounts of natural gas to produce steam for in situ extraction in the oil sands.
Wes Jicklingthe vice president of technology development at COSIA, the innovation arm of the New Pathways Alliance, says the industry has long known that solvents such as propane and butane can act similarly to steam in the production of bitumen.
If solvents could be used to replace steam in oil sands production, the amount of natural gas consumed by the industry would drop dramatically.
We are looking at a 20% reduction and up to a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in some cases using these solvents. The potential is enormousdeclares Wes Jickling.
Environments with similar difficulties
Another potential advantage is that solvents injected with or instead of steam into oil sands reservoirs can then be recovered and reused.
According to the chairman ofImpossible sensory energy, space exploration is not unlike the oil sands environment in that they both operate in conditions of extreme remoteness and harsh climatic conditions and must be able to operate independently without an operator.
Many NASA loads are extremely similar to oil and gas loadsAriel Torre said.
A financial interest to demonstrate
A report published last year by the Pembina Institute shows that the use of solvents in the oil sands is
promising on paperbut comes with technical and cost limitations.
The economics of using solvents with steam can be diminished in cycles of low crude oil prices when the cost of solvent use and recovery outweighs the production revenuesays the report.
The use of solvents to replace steam is just one of the technologies New Paths Alliance member companies are exploring as part of their commitment to reduce their total greenhouse gas emissions from production by 22 million tonnes by 2030 and achieve CO2 neutrality by 2050.
Environmental groups have previously criticized the New Paths Alliance for not moving fast enough to reduce emissions when oil hit record highs last year.
The company Impossible sense energy will work for the next few years to develop its technology to find out if it can be used in the oil sands.