You can't get blood from a stone, but you can get oil and gas with the help of Dr. Christopher Clarkson, PhD. “We’ve been able to produce oil and gas out of rock that is essentially like granite in terms of permeability,” says Clarkson, a professor in the Department of Geoscience in UCalgary's Faculty of Science. “It’s just mind-boggling.”
As the AITF Shell/Encana Chair in Unconventional Gas and Light Oil, Clarkson is looking at ways to improve hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that involves injecting special fluids under high pressure from wells into shale and siltstone formations.
The resulting cracks create pathways for hydrocarbons to travel through rocks that can be substantially less porous than sidewalk cement, says Clarkson.
“It’s really saved the hydrocarbon industry in North America because all of the conventional oil and gas resources were in decline up until the shale gas revolution within the last 15 years,” he says. “It’s enabled us to produce oil and gas out of things we would never have dreamed that we could.”
Clarkson sees his role as helping ensure Albertans, Canadians and the broader world, have abundant energy for everything from cars and heating homes to job-creating industries.
“I’m a citizen of this planet like everybody else,” he says. “What I ultimately want to see is us moving away from hydrocarbons, but the reality is that with these new renewable-type resources like wind and solar, they don’t have the ability at the moment to step up and replace all the energy needs we have across the globe.”
Clarkson expects the transition will likely take several decades. “Our research group is very much focused on improving the efficiency of hydrocarbon extraction while trying to mitigate the environmental impact.”
Fracking has been the focus of public concerns over everything from its links to earthquakes to fears about groundwater contamination. Clarkson’s research includes improving control so that cracks are limited to strictly defined areas within hydrocarbon reservoirs, reducing the chance of problems as it increases cost effectiveness and efficiency.
Another area of research targets simultaneous carbon capture and improved oil recovery, he says. “There is a possibility of increasing oil recovery by injecting CO2, but on the flip side, you can maybe store some of this CO2 permanently in the subsurface so it’s not going to be admitted to the atmosphere.”
Which new technologies are the most viable?
The university was recently granted $75 million over seven years from the federal Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) for research to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of unconventional hydrocarbon resources, as part of UCalgary’s Global Research Initiative in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources.
Research at the university has been divided into several themes, says Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering. “One of them is bitumen and heavy oils, the other one is hydraulically fractured oil and gas, and the third is carbon dioxide conversion,” she says.
“The fourth theme is technology assessment and co-ordination, and that’s the team I’m leading. We’re trying to help Canada transition to low-carbon and renewable energy as it continues to use those conventional and unconventional resources that we have so much of.”
Potential projects include possible low-carbon ways of extracting energy from hydrocarbons to help ease the transition, says Bergerson, who is a Canada Research Chair in Energy Technology Assessment. Her work partly includes tracing the likely path taken by potential technologies as they move from the lab through the development cycle to enter the market.
“We are trying to make sure that the most cost-effective technologies move forward and that we avoid as many unintended consequences as we can,” says Bergerson, who is also a member of the Centre for Environmental Engineering, Research and Education at the Schulich School of Engineering.
She points to an initiative by California in the 1990s to promote zero emission vehicles. While it boosted the use of electric vehicles, helping reduce air pollution from fuels, it also caused more lead to enter the environment due to lead-acid batteries ending up in landfills, she says.
Ontario is a recent example of a government policy with unintended consequences, says Bergerson. “They tried to move forward aggressively to implement renewable energy and develop a renewable manufacturing sector in Ontario, and now electricity prices are high and there is a lot of public pushback.”
Alberta recently enacted a carbon tax, along with setting a goal of generating 30 per cent of the province’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. “Taking into account public and stakeholder concerns is a key aspect that needs to be considered and addressed,” says Bergerson.
Doing nothing is not an option
The province’s abundant oil and gas resources are “both a blessing and a curse,” says Dr. Marc Strous, PhD, who is the Campus Alberta Innovation Program (CAIP) Chair in Reservoir Biogeoscience. “You can make lots of money from them, but at the same time, it makes it difficult for people to see the alternatives.”
As the leader of the research theme involving CO2 capture and conversion, Strous is partly helping to coordinate efforts to extract energy from hydrocarbon deposits while leaving the carbon in the ground.
Scientists are particularly interested in heavy oil, which is a type of low-viscosity hydrocarbon that cannot flow easily, says Strous, who is also a professor in the Department of Geoscience in the Faculty of Science. When such oil is pumped from a reservoir, up to half of it must be left in the ground because full recovery is not economically feasible, he says.
Researchers are considering potential ways to turn this leftover oil into a “giant fuel cell” to generate electricity, he says. Like batteries, fuel cells use electrochemical reactions to produce power, but they need a continuous flow of fuel and oxygen.
Microbes, already present in oil reservoirs, could be used to generate electricity while keeping CO2 in the ground, says Strous. “There’s a lot of chemical energy in such reservoirs, but when you start doing the math, it’s actually quite challenging to produce more energy than a windmill,” he says. “That’s why it’s important we do the math before we start.”
Despite such problems, Strous sees the world’s energy increasingly coming from a mix of renewable and low-carbon sources, with power largely utilized in the form of electricity.
“My main concern about Alberta’s economy is that as the world electrifies, you don’t need a very large degree of, let’s say, electrification of transportation to cause a permanent depression of the price of oil,” he says. “It may become more and more difficult to keep the oilsands viable economically.”
Strous says it’s hard to predict when this could happen. “The only thing we know is that from past transitions – like that from wind-driven sailing ships to coal-fired vessels – these trends tend to be rather minor for quite a long time and then suddenly, in a relatively unexpectedly short period, things turn around.”
It’s vital that Alberta uses its oil and gas riches now to develop other forms of energy, he says. “Alberta has fantastic wind and solar resources, so in that sense, I am not so pessimistic,” says Strous. “I think this province will stay on top in that respect.”
But when asked if he sees any chance of preventing catastrophic climate change, including the growing likelihood of weather extremes such as the massive flooding that hit Alberta in 2013, he answers with a flat “no.” Climate models indicate the process likely has already gone too far to stop things such as rising sea levels from eventually drowning the world’s coastal cities, disrupting the global economy as millions of people are displaced, he says.
As someone who is originally from the low-lying Netherlands, Strous adds that such predictions do not support Albertans doing nothing to change their energy habits because climate change seems inevitable. “We should do our best, but no, I am not optimistic.”
Nanotechnology in oil and gas extraction
During this time of growing uncertainty, researchers at the university are working to ensure “Canada doesn’t just survive, it actually thrives,” says Dr. Steven Bryant, PhD, who is a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs. “This will be a decades-long transition to a low-carbon world, so we will continue to need liquid fuels for our current infrastructure.”
Bryant is leading a research effort created in 2014 with $10 million in federal funding, an amount matched by the university. He is using nanotechnology to explore new ways to produce oil and gas, including methods that are potentially more efficient and have a lower carbon footprint.
These involve using nanoparticles that can be as small as one/10,000th the diameter of a human hair, making them invisible to the human eye. Trillions of particles dispersed in such tiny sizes have unique properties that can potentially help the oil and gas industry, he says.
Viscosity is a common problem faced by the industry, which injects a variety of fluids into a wide range of hydrocarbon deposits to boost extraction, he says. “You’d love it if these fluids just went through like a piston or a snow plough, pushing out everything in front of them, but they don’t do that in practice.”
Bryant is considering coating nanoparticles with substances such as polyethylene glycol, which is used in everything from toothpastes to medicines. Such particles would be particularly attracted to oil and water interfaces, such as the injection of steam into heavy oil and oilsands deposits using the Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) process.
“You can use nanoparticles to stabilize a foam of steam bubbles,” says Bryant, who is also a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering. “Actually, this is a pretty good trick. I didn’t think it would be possible to do this.”
It makes the steam more viscous or thicker, potentially boosting oil extraction while cutting emissions because less steam would likely be needed, he says. It could help ensure Alberta’s producers can continue to use the SAGD process while meeting the recent provincial government cap of 100 megatons per year of CO2 emissions from the oilsands, says Bryant.
But as the scientific strategy leader of the university’s CFREF initiative, he is particularly excited by how it is bringing together scientific teams from many different disciplines across campus to tackle difficult energy problems. Bryant says nanoparticle research could potentially be combined with expertise on microbes to boost the likelihood heavy oil reservoirs can be turned into fuel cells, generating electricity while keeping carbon emissions out of the atmosphere.
“We want to develop ways to derive value from our hydrocarbon resources that have zero carbon impact,” he says. “That’s our moon shot – our holy grail idea – that we are also pursuing.”
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ABOUT OUR EXPERTS
Dr. Christopher Clarkson, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geoscience in UCalgary's Faculty of Science and the AITF Shell/Encana Chair in Unconventional Gas and Light Oil research. He leads an industry-sponsored group called the Tight Oil Consortium, which focuses on these research topics for unconventional light oil reservoirs in Western Canada. View Christopher's publications
Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, is an assistant professor in the UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering, a Canada Research Chair in Energy Technology Assessment, and a member of the faculty’s Centre for Environmental Engineering Research and Education. View Joule's publications
Dr. Marc Strous, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geoscience in UCalgary's Faculty of Science, and a Campus Alberta Innovation Program (CAIP) Chair in Reservoir Biogeoscience. View Marc's publications
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. View Steven's publications