How One Alberta Clean-Tech Company Is Trying To Improve Oil Sands Extraction

The Alberta oil sands offer an immense supply of potential energy, but this valuable resource is often viewed negatively because of the environmental impact of the extraction processes. In particular, Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), the most common method for accessing the heavy bitumen deep underground, not only burns fuel to generate the steam, which can generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s a high-cost production method that consumes an enormous amount of water. Bitumen deposits, which are closer to the surface, have historically been produced using surface mining, which requires extensive disruption to the land surface, and large volumes of fresh water to separate the oil from the sand.

How to extract oil in a more environmentally friendly way is a question that oil sands producers have been asking for a long time. Calgary-based Acceleware might have an answer. This clean tech innovator has developed a solution that could dramatically reduce the capital and resource-intensity of both in situ and surface mining oil sands production. Acceleware’s RF XL heating technology allows producers to generate steam from water that already exists in the ground, enabling them to lower operating costs, decrease GHG emissions, reduce land use, and eliminate the need for solvents and external water.

With the potential to profoundly alter the economic and environmental reality of the oil sands – RF XL may reduce capital costs by as much as 70 percent and operating costs by up to 40 percent when compared to SAGD – Acceleware’s solution has been rapidly gaining momentum. It won the Emerging Clean Technology award at the 2017 Global Petroleum Show in June, and on November 3, Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) have announced that they are making a combined investment of $10 million towards Acceleware’s continued development of the technology.

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Having recognized the potential and uniqueness of Acceleware’s RF heating solutions, GE has been involved in supporting Acceleware’s pilot project. The company has mapped out the entire project with GE Global Research, which is also going to build and test a prototype based on Acceleware’s design.

How it Works

So, how does RF heating technology work?.

The RF stands for ‘radio frequency’, but perhaps the simplest way to think of it is like a very long inside-out microwave oven. “We put the inside of a microwave in the ground, use that microwave energy to turn the water that’s in the ground into steam, and then we get the same result as SAGD production,” says Mike Tourigny, the Vice President of Commercialization for RF Heating at Acceleware. “The steam warms up the rock and oil starts to run into the production well.”

Acceleware’s RF heating tech doesn’t just replicate SAGD production without the extra water—it goes a few steps further by improving efficiency. While in situ steam production heats water to become steam, it must then transport that steam to the well and then further down to the oil sand. Acceleware has designed its RF technology for maximum efficiency, creating the heat right inside the actual oil sand formation. “Our losses are very low compared to steam, where as soon as you make that steam hot at the surface, you then have to pump it into a pipe to get to the well, and then pump it down the well into where the oil is,” says Tourigny.

Finding the right solution

Controlling the RF output for maximum efficiency is no small feat. It takes an enormous amount of RF energy to generate enough heat to operate an in-situ production process in the oil sands. Oil producers have been experimenting with RF technology for a long time, but a commercial solution has always eluded them. “There are patents and tests going back to 1948 or earlier, but they tended to be inefficient and difficult to control,” says Tourigny. “A lot of those early tests, they effectively blew up their wells, because they couldn’t predict or control the heating process.”

The differentiators that Acceleware brings to the table are the efficiency of the RF XL technology along with its high-power modelling software. “We can deliver energy to the reservoir much more efficiently than previously possible and can predict, at a granular level, how that energy will impact the formation and how much oil will be produced,” says Tourigny. “The result is a very flexible way to produce heavy oil and oil sands that has lower emissions and lower costs than current methods of production. That’s why this technology could really change the future of the industry.”

With its new $10 million infusion from SDTC and ERA, Acceleware plans to continue working with GE and other partners to do a full-scale pilot test with a one-kilometer heating well in an oil sands reservoir. “We’ve done 1/20th scale near-surface tests where we’ve proven that our technology can successfully heat the water in a formation,” says Tourigny. “The next step is to run a full-sized test with a high-efficiency GE generator in the oil sands.”  (GE also plays a part in Acceleware’s development process by adapting its silicon carbide platform to help convert the electricity to RF energy.)

The sooner Acceleware’s technology can be used in active production, the better. While improving efficiency and saving money are powerful adoption drivers, they are just part of the story. “The high levels of water use for SAGD and surface mining operations has been a serious environmental concern for years with water being taken from rivers throughout Alberta,” says Tourigny. “We can put that down to zero. Combine that with our ability to reduce capital and operational costs, as well as reduce land use and GHG emissions, and we have a real game changer on our hands.”


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