​​U of C puts a bullseye on field pilots for low emissions oil and gas extraction with $75M federal funding

Ian Gates is department head of chemical and petroleum engineering at the U of C's Schulich School of Engineering. Image: U of C

The success of a $75 million federal funding injection into the University of Calgary will be measured in a way that is not “business as usual” for academia, says one of the school’s lead energy researchers.

Last fall the U of C was awarded the seven-year grant under the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), with a focus on reducing the carbon footprint of oilsands and tight oil and gas extraction.

But it’s not only about academic achievement, says Ian Gates, professor in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.

“The focus of this CFREF is solution-centric. It’s not just about papers – scholarly impact is very important but also too is the delivery of solutions to the challenging problems that the energy industry faces,” Gates told the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) 2017 Oil & Gas Symposium on Monday.

“Beyond great papers, we want to take technology to the field. That is one key end goal.”

Gates says that success will be measured by how many field pilots are conducted and the level of emissions reduction those tests achieve.

“All of this is about how do we get oil out of the ground more efficiently with less water; how do we do that with both of these unconventional resources? How do we convert to something beyond oil, [such as] hydrogen, electrons and so on. Can you imagine the day when you put in a well configuration into an oilsands reservoir and instead of getting oil out, you simply get power? That is what we are all about at the end of this game.”

The U of C’s CFREF is focused on three research themes, with grand challenges in each area:

Heavy oil and bitumen

  • Reducing viscosity of heavy oil and bitumen at moderate temperature
  • Imaging/controlling in situ flow processes

Tight oil and gas

  • Imaging/controlling hydraulic fracturing
  • Enabling small footprint recovery from low-permeability reservoirs

CO2 technologies utilization and conversion

  • Zero CO2 emission energy extraction from petroleum reservoirs
  • Next generation CO2 capture and conversion catalysis

Gates cited 10 projects so far under the CFREF, including an upcoming pilot on heavy oil and oilsands energy extraction for hydrogen.

The U of C is also working on a $13 million collaboration with the University of Alberta, which also received $75 million in CFREF funding last fall targeting responsible energy development and transition to a lower-carbon energy economy.

Gates acknowledged that there are significant barriers for technology developers in the crossover to commercialization, but says there are solutions.

“What I’m finding is working fairly well at least in my group is in terms of sharing intellectual property with our sponsors. IP cannot be the barrier to getting solutions done,” he says.

“A lot of the issues that I find that are barriers for a company to work with us to take a technology that we created in a lab to a small sea-can pilot to then an in-ground pilot, it’s over IP.”

Agreements where a developer wants to own a certain per-barrel percentage of proceeds gleaned from its technology are prohibitive, Gates said.

“Even if you said 0.5 percent, most operators will say forget it, we don’t want to have any obligation on a per-barrel basis. You’re not going to become a billionaire on an oilsands technology but you certainly will improve the income for Alberta, which will power our health system, our education system and so on. I would say relax on the IP.”