Sept. 16, 2019

How is cutting carbon like winning a world war? Applying unconventional thinking to an increasingly urgent problem

During World War II, defeating the threat of enemy nuclear weapons required government, scientists and citizens to work together decisively on an unprecedented scale. Some scientists say climate change is a comparable threat, and comparable efforts are needed to overcome it.

As the world grapples with the enormity of climate change, UCalgary scientists are working on possible solutions, ranging from proposed research into a way to potentially use the province’s oilfields to directly store carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from the atmosphere — in essence creating “green” barrels of oil — to technology that aims to convert some of Alberta’s hydrocarbon riches into eco-friendly hydrogen fuels and power.

“Every person I’ve ever talked to in the oil sands industry and heavy oil, they all want to make things better than they were yesterday,” says Dr. Ian Gates, PhD, who is the director of the university’s $75-million Global Research Initiative (GRI) in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources. “One of their overriding concerns is to make continuous improvements in their processes so they create new technologies and cleaner options moving forward.”

As a scientist who's spent 33 years helping the world’s oil and gas industry improve its efficiency and effectiveness, Dr. Steven Bryant, PhD, says climate change is not only real, humanity has to start doing something about it now. A recent UN report on biodiversity says one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, adding that halting such trends will require “transformative change” in every aspect of how humans interact with nature.

“We need to be implementing technologies that actively take CO2 out of the atmosphere, or our grandchildren are really going to be having an unpleasant time of it,” says Bryant, who is the scientific strategy leader for GRI as well as a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the university’s Schulich School of Engineering.

“Essentially, we've waited too long to get around to reducing carbon emissions. Even if we waved a magic wand and the next day, all the vehicles, all the lights and everything were being run from renewable energy, we would still need to be removing CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Part of the problem is the central role of fossil fuels in the modern world, says Dr. Nader Mahinpey, PhD, who is the university’s NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) Research Chair, Novel CO2 Capture Technologies for Oil Sands Operations.

“We need to cut CO2 emissions, but given the nature of our industrial world, and the importance of fossil fuels and their established nature in our economy, there is no way we can replace these fuels in a short period of time with other modes of energy, such as alternative energy or renewable energy sources,” says Mahinpey. “We're likely talking about at least a few decades for the transition, so if we have to keep on using industrial processes that emit carbon, we need to do something about them that these industries will adopt and can retrofit to their existing operations.”

A modern Manhattan Project?

But Canadians also have to start thinking far outside the box in their approach to the problem, says Dr. Steve Larter, PhD, a geoscientist who is the university’s associate vice-president (research – innovation). Canada needs to create a coordinated and focused research, technology and policy initiative on a multi-billion-dollar scale — a kind of climate-change Manhattan Project to unite the country to eliminate carbon emissions with the same urgency and sense of purpose as its Second World War-era predecessor, he says.

“This would create the new technology, industry and sustainable economic models to propel such a venture,” says Larter. “In order to achieve this, we need to start taking very new political approaches and new economic models, and we'll need a new style of university that delivers solutions as well as graduates.”

As a scientist who fears for the world’s future if more is not done to limit climate change and accelerate an energy system transition, Larter says UCalgary “is really trying to turn more and more of its research, and especially its applied research, into innovative applications that function in the real world."

“We're essentially creating a new type of university — an innovation university — and the developments are exciting, with new ways of thinking and teaching, research parks, and solutions that are seen as a normal part of the academic enterprise, rather than something done elsewhere. This is happening at the same time as Calgary itself is rapidly becoming a developing technology and startup hub, well beyond the traditional oil and gas sectors.”

Young people are a key factor behind the university’s scientific vitality, says Larter, adding they have helped drive “quite different and novel” research initiatives into carbon emissions reduction and the energy transition, and have sparked new startup companies.

“Who does the research on these projects? It’s grad students and postdocs, an increasing number of whom not only make discoveries, but also take that knowledge and turn it into solutions and technologies, and sometimes businesses and jobs,” he says. “The average age of the technical people on the Manhattan Project was late twenties — they were grad students and postdocs. Our solutions for the clean energy and clean economy transition in Canada will come from that same demographic.”

In terms of the GRI alone, the university has “roughly 60 professors involved in all these projects,” says Gates, also a professor in the Department Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “There is something like nearly 300 grad students and postdocs involved. We have components of projects with Mexico and China, and we also have a lot of joint projects with the University of Alberta, so it’s very exciting to have all that involvement targeting clean fossil fuel production.”

As the university helps the oil and gas industry with carbon emissions, Gates says it’s important to remember that the industry itself is not standing still and is undertaking its own substantial research and initiatives, such as Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN).

According to Gates, much of the progress and prosperity Canadians now enjoy is due to decades of effort by oil and gas companies to provide reliable, affordable energy that has fuelled everything from cars and homes to job-creating industries.

The potential for green oil

The same geology that has blessed Alberta with oil and gas riches could potentially make it a key player in global efforts to find solutions to the climate change dilemma, says Bryant, who is also a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs. Along with his colleagues, he's in the preliminary stages of considering what it might take to directly capture CO2 from the atmosphere, then store it in oil reservoirs while producing oil.

“The question is whether or not we can build direct air carbon capture at a scale that will potentially enable us to hook it up with the oil in Alberta, and keep recovering oil and selling it into the world market, but it’s going to be a green barrel of oil,” he says. “The oil will certainly get consumed and turned into CO2, but more CO2 will have been pulled out of the atmosphere than will have been produced — in other words, the total emissions will be negative.”

Birds and smokestacks

UCalgary researchers are exploring ways to combine carbon capture and oil production.

Bryant says it's vital to start a conversation about what it may potentially take to achieve negative emissions through direct air carbon capture combined with conventional energy production. “This is not an option that has even occurred to most people, so part of it is just socializing them to the idea,” he says.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is getting representatives from the Canadian government, the Alberta government, and the oil and gas industry to sit down with us and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we start a negative emissions technology research effort right here that’s made and developed and invented in Canada?’”

Rather than direct air capture of CO2, scientists have traditionally focused their efforts on carbon capture and storage for major industrial emitters because such sources have large rates of CO2 at high concentrations, says Bryant. “Even from these sources, however, it's still energy intensive, which is why so little has generally happened to deploy these technologies,” he says.

At a total cost of about $900 million, up to 1.8 megatonnes of CO2 per year will be captured from a fertilizer plant and a refinery near Edmonton and sent 240 kilometres via the $470-million Alberta Carbon Trunk Line. It will be used to enhance oil recovery at mature conventional oilfields near Clive, Alberta. Upon completion in 2019, the development will be the largest such carbon capture and storage/pipeline project in the world.

CO2 in, oil out

“If the goal is to reduce emissions, and that is still a vital goal for mitigating climate change, then capturing CO2 from these sources makes perfect sense,” says Bryant. “But if we want to go further and actually take CO2 out of the air, then direct air capture also makes sense.”

A recent report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says it is vital to find ways to reduce the fossil fuel CO2 already present in the atmosphere. While there are significant hurdles that need to be investigated and overcome, “we’ve got to do negative emissions in order to have a chance of avoiding pretty substantial climate change,” says Bryant.

“You need some energy to drive any carbon capture process, so if you start to generalize this notion, the beauty of it is that we can build direct air capture units right here at some kind of oil and gas production facility. We could possibly take some of that stream of energy to drive the process.”

If the scalability of this combined air capture/hydrocarbon production process can be demonstrated, it would potentially be less expensive than current approaches, says Bryant. “Instead of having to go find a coal-fired power plant someplace and build a very large and expensive flue gas capture unit there, and then build an expensive pipeline to someplace where you can store it or use it for enhanced oil recovery, you could potentially get your CO2 right where you need it,” he says.

“You’ve got the whole atmosphere above you at each oilfield. There could possibly be hundreds or even thousands of smaller direct air carbon capture units in operation in Alberta alone.”

The annual worldwide total for CO2 emissions is 37 gigatonnes, with one gigatonne equal to 1,000 megatonnes, says Bryant. Alberta emits about 70 megatonnes of CO2 per year from oil production, he says. The province currently produces several hundred thousand barrels per day of light oil, he says, adding such reservoirs are often good candidates for CO2 enhanced recovery.

“If we could produce that amount of oil with air-captured CO2, we could potentially be pulling a net 35 megatonnes per year out of the atmosphere, eliminating half of Alberta’s current oil production footprint,” he says. “Applying this technology next door in Saskatchewan could possibly pull another 20 to 30 megatonnes per year out of the atmosphere, but the bigger picture would be licensing and applying the technology worldwide to potentially get one gigatonne per year removed from the atmosphere.”

The province’s oil and gas industry may already have some of the potential expertise needed to make direct air carbon capture work, he says, pointing to existing air separation units (ASUs) that take nitrogen out of the atmosphere for use in oil recovery in oilfields. “From a process point of view, this would be analogous to an ASU, except it’s capturing the CO2 out of the atmosphere,” he says.

At a time when the world is beginning to respond to climate change by switching to greener sources of energy, Bryant sees using direct air carbon capture to produce green, negative-emissions oil as throwing a potential lifeline to Albertans worried about what will happen to their jobs in the oil and gas industry.

“The beauty of this would be that we don’t have to take our drilling skills and go entirely into geothermal, or retrain and rejigger our workforce to do something completely different,” he says. “You can kind of keep doing what you’re really good at doing and know how to do. It’s just that we’ll also be doing air capture on site at the same time.”

But researchers first need to come up with an initial prototype that can be scaled up to an affordable technology the oil and gas industry can use, says Bryant, adding a key part of the problem involves the dynamics of storing CO2 underground.

“When you burn oil, you produce about half a tonne of CO2 for every barrel of oil, so to reach the break-even point, you have to take at least as much CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in a reservoir,” he says. “The problem is that CO2 is less dense in terms of its carbon content than oil, so if I take a barrel of oil out of that reservoir, I can’t get half a tonne of CO2 to fit in that amount of space.”

It means that water naturally present in such reservoirs must also be removed, he says. The oil industry routinely handles such water in a safe and environmentally sustainable way, typically by re-injecting it into the subsurface, says Bryant. It means no new technology would likely be needed for this part of the negative emissions process, but it does open up some intriguing possibilities, he says.

Such water often consists of a brine filled with salt and other contaminants. These often include trace elements such as lithium, which is used in batteries that power everything from smart phones and tablets to electric vehicles, says Bryant. It could not only potentially create a lucrative new source to meet growing world demand, it could possibly help defray the expense of direct air carbon capture, he says. “If push comes to shove, you can always just dispose of that brine in another reservoir someplace, as the industry already does routinely, but the cost/benefit of all this comes down to the cost of handling that water."

“Now, to do this at scale will require a lot of effort and a lot of government decisions, such as carbon policies, and whether we need to build this and make a market-driven profit on it as a business. I'm convinced we can do the technology piece of the puzzle, so I think this is perhaps more political and regulatory than it is technical.”

Hydrogen from hydrocarbons

As they look for potential solutions to the problem of carbon emissions, UCalgary scientists are also considering if it's possible to avoid creating them in the first place, yet still produce energy from Alberta’s hydrocarbon bounty.

“We’re wealthy when it comes to the amount of heavy oil and oil sands we have in the ground,” says Gates. “If we can now start to instead produce hydrogen from them, and if we can do it with a life cycle where essentially our hydrogen production system is powered by that hydrogen, you could argue that it will be cleaner than the life cycle of solar or wind energy.”

Hydrogen is seen as a green fuel because its emissions only consist of water vapour. Not only does Japan plan to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to showcase its vision for a hydrogen society — including fuelling the Olympic torch and powering the athletes village — but Canadian companies are also considering uses for the gas that range from powering cars to heating homes.

Among the hurdles currently blocking the widespread use of hydrogen, one of the biggest from a climate change perspective is that traditional industrial ways of producing the gas require a lot of energy – which is often derived from fossil fuels that boost carbon emissions, says Gates.

Under the umbrella of Proton Technologies, a company he co-founded, Gates is leading a research effort into the problem that has already yielded several patents. It involves the injection of air enhanced with oxygen deep underground into heavy oil reservoirs or oil sands deposits.

The resulting chemical reaction is a naturally occurring, spontaneous form of combustion that releases heat. After underground temperatures have risen beyond 500°C — far past the melting point of lead — molecules such as heavy oil and water begin to break apart. Despite such heat, due to the depth of these reservoirs and the presence of water, the reactions are controlled, says Gates, who is also a professor in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering. The resulting pure hydrogen gas is extracted and brought to the surface while leaving the carbon oxides buried in the ground, he says. The process could potentially be used on most hydrocarbon deposits in Alberta. But due to the fact it can break down water as well as hydrocarbons, he sees it being particularly suited to sites that have traditionally been avoided by oil companies.

“We like the idea of a 50 per cent water/50 per cent oil reservoir, whereas if you look at most heavy oil and oil sands producers, they would run away from it because it wouldn’t be economic,” he says. “I think it’s a beautiful use of our resources.”

Besides being used as a source of energy, such hydrogen could potentially be a zero-carbon way to enhance the recovery of Alberta’s oil and gas resources, says Gates, adding it is also a major industrial feedstock or component in the production of many important chemicals.

Following an initial field trial in 2018 that produced a small amount of hydrogen to test the feasibility of the process, a second field trial of Gates’ process is being planned for 2020. “We’re probably looking at multiple field trials before it’s declared a commercial process, so you’re probably looking at three to five years from now,” he says.

Oil reservoirs as batteries

Larter, the university’s associate vice-president (research – innovation), is part of a team of scientists that is investigating other ways to extract energy from oilfields while leaving carbon in the ground. “When you think about petroleum, you don’t really want oil and gas, you want energy and chemicals,” he says. “We are looking at whether we can directly produce electricity from the oilfields.”

The method is being studied as part of the SYZYGY project, which is a term for an astronomical alignment or eclipse, he says. “We are looking at several approaches, including injecting metal ions into underground oil reservoirs,” he says.

The idea is that naturally occurring microbes in the reservoir will use the ions to oxidize the oil, producing electron-rich components that can be transported to the surface to a fuel cell to make electricity, says Larter. “The whole system is intended to act like a giant battery to produce electricity with no CO2 emissions,” he says.

“Currently, it looks as though the approach probably won’t work at as large a scale as we originally envisaged, but with an innovative team of postdocs, several exciting technological routes have emerged that could end up as parts of other low-emission energy transition technologies.

“It’s not just technology and solutions, either, as such projects also make fundamental discoveries. Discovery and technology are related — either one can spawn the other.”

Making rail and sea transport safer

Gates gained international attention in 2017 for what originally seemed to him to be a mistake. While trying to upgrade bitumen, his research team instead degraded it into dry, coal-like pellets with a liquid core. “We put it on the shelf, because who would want this stuff?” he says.

It turned out the pellets are a potential solution to a major problem that has dogged Alberta. Due to stalled pipeline projects, the province has become increasingly reliant on alternatives such as railways to ship heavy oil and liquid bitumen, says Gates.

Not only have such methods sparked public fears due to the fatal explosion and fire that destroyed much of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec — caused in 2013 by crude oil tankers in a runaway train — but they often require that rail cars and storage facilities be heated to temperatures greater than 100°C for months, boosting carbon emissions and adding to costs throughout the transportation chain.

Gates realized he had discovered a way to convert heavy crude oil and oil sands bitumen into pellets that are both difficult to ignite and don’t need to be heated during shipment. They can be moved using regular rail cars while cutting emissions by up to 35 per cent per tonne per kilometre of travel, he says. “You can simply transport them as you would wheat, corn or coal for about half the cost of a heated rail car."

The pellets can be manufactured in sizes ranging from pills to golf balls and can be made to float, minimizing the impact of environmental spills and easing clean-ups, he says. Besides being turned into oil, the pellets could open up vast new markets for Alberta’s oil sands ranging from high-grade asphalt for roads to carbon fibres for high-tech composites, says Gates.

Several patents have arisen from the research and a company called Solideum has been formed. Two pilot projects are separately being considered for Alberta and Saskatchewan, but Gates says he can’t reveal more details pending further development and commercialization of the technology.

Capturing CO2 — and then what?

Other scientists at the university are working on ways to help Alberta’s large industrial emitters actually use carbon capture to create products, which could then be sold to other industries to help minimize the cost of the process. “Right now, the only solution we have after capturing this CO2 is that we just stick it in the ground,” says Mahinpey, the university’s NSERC Research Chair, Novel CO2 Capture Technologies for Oil Sands Operations.

His work is focused on Alberta’s oil and gas sector — including refineries and upgraders as well as the oil sands industry — along with other large emitters such as the province’s coal-fired power plants and the cement industry. Carbon captured from these industries could be turned into value-added substances ranging from ammonia, methanol and acetone to synthetic fuels and polymers, he says.

Working with industrial partners such as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Devon Energy Corp., Mahinpey aims to create a new method of carbon capture and conversion that is affordable as well as technologically feasible.

“The most established mode of carbon capture involves the use of liquid solvents such as amine systems, which is a method we’ve known about for a long time and is in its maturity,” says Mahinpey, who is also a professor in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.

“People have come up with different numbers for how much it costs, but realistically, it’s more or less around US$100 per tonne of CO2. I am aiming to bring down the cost to somewhere around US$40 per tonne, or even less. We have to be able to convince these industries to use this technology, otherwise it is going to be a very tough sale.”

Part of Mahinpey’s proposed technology involves a combustion process called chemical looping. It uses solid, physically durable and chemically stable materials called oxygen carriers, which remove nitrogen oxides from high-temperature flue gases that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere.

“The oxygen carriers can do their magic because they have oxygen in their chemical structure that is donated in one cycle, and then the oxygen is regenerated and donated over and over,” in hundreds or even thousands of repeated cycles, says Mahinpey. The process occurs in a special containment vessel called a reactor, leaving behind purified flue gases that largely consist of steam and CO2.

A major hurdle is that CO2 is a highly stable molecule that takes plenty of energy to break apart and reconfigure. “Whatever the conversion mode is, you have to apply energy, which costs money,” says Mahinpey.

“My aim is to bring down the cost by designing new catalysts, which are substances that can make chemical reactions happen faster at lower temperatures. They do their magic by driving the reaction forward more efficiently, cutting the amount of energy required.”

Other ways to boost efficiency include the design of the reactor. Mahinpey expects to have a working pilot project in operation somewhere in Alberta in three to five years, with the aim of eventually creating a commercially viable technology.

Larter and other researchers are also involved in a project that aims to revolutionize the storage of carbon emissions away from the atmosphere. Alternative Vectors for Carbon Storage (AVECS) involves the development of organic species that are biologically resistant, stable and water soluble — features that could allow them to be placed into geological reservoirs not suitable for CO2 injection, he says. “This could reduce costs and make carbon storage more widespread.”

Carbon containment

Under the Paris Agreement, Canada made a commitment in 2015 to cut its emissions to 517 megatonnes per year by 2030, down from its current estimated total of 715 megatonnes. “That’s only 11 years away, and the scale of the problem is massive,” says Dr. Donald Lawton, PhD, a professor in the department of geosciences in UCalgary's Faculty of Science.

“Carbon capture and storage underground is an early winner, because it’s something we can do immediately,” says Lawton. “The oil and gas industry has decades of experience injecting fluids into the subsurface for things like enhancing the recovery of oil, so we just need to be able to demonstrate both to the public and to the regulators that this is a viable, long-term storage solution.”

As the director of the not-for-profit Containment and Monitoring Institute (CaMI), which is part of CMC Research Institutes, Lawton is leading a $7-million project in partnership with the university to verify that large amounts of CO2 can be securely stored underground. It consists of a field research station on a 200-hectare site in Newell County, about 20 kilometres southwest of Brooks, Alberta.

CO2 is injected into the bottom of a 300-metre-deep well lined with a metal casing. Along with two observation wells about 20 metres away, it contains an array of sensors linked to fibre optic sensors and monitoring systems that look at everything from temperature to seismology.

Processing the monitoring data will use new approaches such as artificial intelligence and machine learning that are being created at the university. “We're developing the monitoring technologies so that we can better understand what happens to CO2 when you inject it underground,” says Lawton. “We need to be able to map where it goes to ensure that it stays in the zones that we are injecting it into, because CO2 is a buoyant fluid. If there is a pathway to the surface, it will find it and slowly migrate its way back up to the atmosphere, which would defeat the purpose of storing it.”

Although the tank holding the CO2 only contains about 50 tonnes — but is refilled as needed — Lawton’s goal is to create technologies that can be applied to projects on the scale of millions of tonnes per year. He sees it as a companion to the $1.35-billion Quest Carbon Capture and Storage project near Edmonton, which is the first in the world to use CO2 from oil sands production.

Quest is currently injecting and storing about 1.1 million tonnes of CO2 per year in deep underground formations, says Lawton, adding many of the world’s major oil companies have committed to becoming carbon neutral. But like scientists such as Bryant, he sees carbon capture directly from the atmosphere, rather than just industries, as the greatest potential use for the carbon storage technology his team is developing.

“The view of much of the public is that the energy transition will be to renewable energy sources or other forms of energy, and we’ll just leave fossil fuels in the ground,” says Lawton. “But the reality is that bodies such as the International Energy Agency are still seeing fossil fuels as being 70 per cent of the world’s energy mix, even by 2040 or 2050. If we could simply capture all those combustion outputs, we could continue to use fossil fuels and not contribute to additional warming trends.”

Southern Alberta is “perfectly set up for this sort of scenario because we have very good storage reservoirs that are deep or very close to the bottom of the sedimentary column that sits on top of the Precambrian basement rocks here,” says Lawton. “Above that, there are these extensive salt horizons that no fluids will flow through, so Alberta has been characterized as having a very large storage capacity.”

Although Lawton is a strong advocate of carbon capture and storage, he says there's no silver bullet when it comes to cutting emissions and starting to put the brakes on climate change.

“Our research is just one of a whole range of technologies that need to be implemented to become carbon neutral, or preferably even carbon negative, whether it’s CO2 conversion to other products, whether it’s carbon capture and storage, or the transition to renewable energy,” he says. “No single one of them alone can actually get us to the emission targets we need to reach.”

He points to a recent study in Nature Communications that suggests greenhouse gas emissions from four major Canadian oil sands surface mining operations are 64 per cent higher on average than what the facilities have reported to the federal government. If scientists can show emissions from other oil sands operations are similarly underreported, Canada’s total CO2 emissions could be as much as six per cent higher than currently estimated, further complicating the choices faced by Canadians as the country races the clock to tackle climate change.

Not thinking big enough

Is the current market-driven approach to dealing with carbon emissions enough to get Canada over the finish line in time? We need to start thinking in much bigger terms, says Larter.

During the Second World War, the fear that Nazi Germany would develop nuclear weapons to annihilate the Allies sparked the Manhattan Project in the U.S. in 1942. Research was rapidly undertaken in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, with the project eventually employing more than 130,000 people. They produced the first atomic bomb from scratch in less than four years at a total cost of $23 billion US (in terms of 2007 dollars).

“At the start of the project, scientists knew almost nothing about what they had to do, but they were very organized, collaborative — linking academia, industry, government — and well-funded, so there was an absolutely amazing transformation from some initial theoretical research to a functioning technology,” says Larter. “Unfortunately, it was a weapon, but it shows what can be accomplished quickly when people unite to work together on a problem.”

A light bulb surrounded by people

Stopping climate change will require thinking on a much bigger scale, say researchers.

Something similar is needed to speed Canada’s transition to an energy future that is climate neutral and economically sustainable, he says. “We need to spend billions of dollars per year in a focused, coordinated manner over several years to make the necessary technical and social changes and bind the country together. Our current indecisive approaches are not working.”

Larter was the research director from 2010 to 2016 of Carbon Management Canada (now CMC Research Institutes), a not-for-profit corporation based at the University of Calgary that aimed to help create such technologies. The multi-partner initiative coordinated research at universities and industries across the country, leaving legacy institutes that include Lawton’s CaMI facility near Brooks.

By way of comparison, “Canada spends about two per cent of its Gross National Product (GDP) on retail at Christmas, or about $30 billion a year,” says Larter.

“I'm not the Grinch and I'm not suggesting we cancel Christmas, but we don’t seem to be able to prioritize and focus on getting organized — making decisions, collaborating, and spending enough money on a sustained basis, and on a short enough time scale — to actually fix the problem.

“It will cost much less to fix it now than it will when we're facing the full-scale consequences of climate change at the end of the century. It also provides Canada with the opportunity to create new economic and technological approaches that will make it competitive in a world where it can no longer rely on digging up and selling its natural resources.”

Larter spoke during a recent Skype interview from China, a country that is becoming an increasingly influential player on the world stage. The University of Calgary has numerous links with the emerging superpower that range from a research site in Beijing to formal partnerships and scientific collaborations with several Chinese universities.

“One of the things I'm attempting to do here, beyond promoting Canada-China collaborations, is to try to encourage them in what I think is the right direction about the energy transition and climate change,” says Larter, adding that such decisions are made in very different ways than in Canada.

“If the government says all of China’s cars must be electric in 10 years, all their cars will be electric in 10 years,” he says. “When the Chinese decide to do something, they are a force to be reckoned with. China is a country where decisions, good or bad, are made and implemented at scale.”

When asked what he would most like to convey as a scientist to Albertans and Canadians, Lawton says his message is a simple one of urgency. “What I would like the average person to understand is that we really need to be acting immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’re hearing almost every day now about the effects of climate change. It comes back to this theme of everything we want to do about reducing emissions coming at some cost, but this is small compared to the cost of doing nothing.”


– – – – –




Participate in a research study


– – – – –


Dr. Ian Gates, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering. His research interests are focused on heavy oil and oil sands recovery process design and optimization. Read more about Ian
Dr. Steven Bryant, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering and the first Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs at the University of Calgary. He is helping lead the exploration for new and sustainable ways to develop unconventional oil reservoirs by taking advantage of advances in materials science. Read more about Steven
Dr. Nader Mahinpey, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering and the university's NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) Research Chair, Novel CO2 Capture Technologies for Oil Sands Operations. His research focuses on greenhouse gas technologies, biofuel and biogas production from renewable sources, and utilization of municipal solid and industrial waste. Read more about Nader
Dr. Steve Larter, PhD, is a professor in UCalgary's Department of Geoscience. He is also the Associate Vice-President (Research and Innovation) and Canada Research Chair in Petroleum Geology. His research interests are in biogeochemistry, new and renewable energy from petroleum reservoirs, carbon management, petroleum biodegradation as a portal into the deep biosphere, novel analytical methods for the characterization of complex geochemical fractions, and accelerated deployment of climate change mitigation technologies. Read more about Steve
Dr. Donald Lawton, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geoscience in UCalgary's Faculty of Science and director of the not-for-profit Containment and Monitoring Institute (CaMI). His research interests include acquisition, processing and interpretation of multi-component and conventional seismic data and near surface geophysical studies for environmental applications and for reflection static corrections as well as geological storage of CO2. Read more about Donald



girl using vr headset

Stay updated

Get our latest stories in your inbox every month. Sign up for our newsletters and receive stories of inspiration and discovery, event notifications, breaking news, and more.

Thank you for your submission.