Podcast: Forget steam, it’s time to microwave that oil sands bitumen!

RF LX downhole heater promises to replace steam for SAGD, lower or eliminate GHG emissions, reduce costs

Of all the types of energy news I report, innovation and new technology stories are the most interesting. There’s something about smart people using science and engineering to solve real world problems that gives me hope for humanity. After all, if we’re abusing the planet because of bad technology, then it stands to reason that better technology is the fix. Mike Tourigny of Calgary-based Acceleware is one of those smart people whose better widget promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs for hard pressed oil sands producers.

Kevin Birn, IHS director of the Oil Sands Dialogue, argues that SAGD (steam assisted gravity drainage) production hasn’t changed much in the 17 years since it became commercially viable and is due for another advance in technology and efficiency.

As Harbir Chinna, Cenovus VP of technology and “godfather” of SAGD, explained to me in an interview, the giant oil sands producer is focused on reducing or eliminating stream from its process. The company already has some of the lowest steam-oil ratios (the amount of steam required to produce one barrel of bitumen) in the industry, but believes that adding natural gas – which thins the bitumen without heating it – as part of its “solvent-aided process” is the future for SAGD producers.

[Today we’re] “at 250 degrees Celsius and next year, we’ll be looking at lower temperature solvents, trying to get to less than 100 degrees. If we could make that work, that would drop our steam-oil ratio by 75% which is a game changer,” he said.

RF (radio frequency) heaters of the kind being pioneered by Acceleware aren’t yet being seriously considered by Cenovus.

Mike Tourigny, VP Commercialization, RF heating, Acceleware Ltd. Photo: Alberta Oil Magazine.

“There are companies looking at electrical heating, those technologies are on our watch and wait list,” he said.

Chinna may not be waiting much longer.

Last month, Acceleware received a $10 million grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Emissions Reduction Alberta to undertake a commercial-scale field test. If the project is successful, the company could be ready to offer small-scale commercial applications as early as 2020.

 If successful, Tourigny says in the podcast that his company’s downhole RF heater could reduce SAGD operation costs by 50 per cent and significantly lower emissions, if not eliminate them.

This is exactly the kind of innovation the Alberta government is looking to promote with its Carbon Competitiveness Incentives program, announced in early Dec. That innovation will be backed up by $440 million earmarked in the Innovation Fund for oil sands technology advances.

As Tourigny and I discuss during the interview, the Alberta oil and gas sector is experiencing a tremendous period of technology development, which gets very little media attention and is poorly understood by the public.

Expect more Energi News stories and podcasts on the new technologies emerging from the laboratories and workshops of Alberta. And we’ll continue to follow the Acceleware story as Tourigny and his team attempt to take the final – and probably most difficult – step by turning their RF XL technology into a business success.

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