As oil sands companies scramble to meet their climate goals and face an incoming limit on total emissions from the federal government, there has never been more focus on how the industry in the north of Alberta can reduce its vast air pollution. The result is a flurry of technological innovation, including ideas first conceived decades ago – like microwave oil out of the ground.
It’s essentially technology developed by Calgary-based software company Acceleware, which began producing oil at its demonstration plant in the province last month near Lloydminster.
Underground, the company uses radio waves to heat oil, which is then pumped to the surface. The technology remains in development and still faces challenges, but its proponents say it has the potential to reduce carbon emissions in the sector.
“Since the 1940s, people have thought about using radio frequency energy to produce petroleum,” said Acceleware CEO Geoff Clark.
In the past, even in recent decades, researchers have used equipment from radio or television stations, which Clark says doesn’t perform well as a heat source.
“In our opinion, the frequency ranges are all wrong, the efficiency is totally wrong, and the capital cost of this communications equipment is way too high,” he said.
When oil sands companies drill oil wells, they typically heat the bitumen using steam, which is produced from natural gas. If radio wave technology is successful, businesses could reduce their emissions and water consumption. There could also be savings in operating and capital costs, Clark said.
“Using electrification to decarbonize heavy oil production is really what we’re trying to do,” he said. “The big challenge for us is to demonstrate that we do what we say the technology can do.”
Acceleware’s demonstration facility began operating in March and began producing oil in April, although the company did not say how much. The company is gradually increasing the amount of electricity to test how much heat and oil can be produced.
The plan is to run the project for six to 12 months, in order to collect enough data. Acceleware does not want to be an oil company itself, but rather sell and service equipment to oilfield producers.
The technology could be ready for use in industry as early as next year, the company said, if the demonstration is successful.
WATCH | How Acceleware came up with the idea of using radio waves in the oil field:
“It’s the beginning”
Acceleware, which was founded in 2004 as a software company, has received over $15 million in government grants from Alberta Innovates, Emissions Reduction Alberta and Sustainable Development Technology Canada. Industry partners include oil sands heavyweights Suncor and Cenovus.
“It’s just the beginning, but it’s exciting,” said Bryan Helfenbaum, executive director of advanced hydrocarbons at Alberta Innovates, a provincial government corporation.
Acceleware is entering a “tipping point,” he said, as the next few months will show what kind of oil production is possible at what depth, scale, price and duration.
“There are a lot of factors that will go into commercial viability and whether this is a solution that could be applied very broadly, or more of a niche opportunity,” Helfenbaum said. “This is a really novel approach that can significantly reduce our emissions, especially as Alberta’s power grid greens over time.”
WATCH | Heavy oil producers are testing many ways to reduce emissions, such as the use of solvents, such as butane:
Helfenbaum was part of a similar project several years ago before he joined Alberta Innovates, when Suncor and others in the industry explored the use of radio waves and solvents to create heat underground.
The project cost more than $100 millionbut was never fully tested, Helfenbaum said, due to installation issues and other issues.
Several possible solutions
There are dozens of other research projects underway to reduce emissions in the oil sands, including a focus on decreasing the amount of steam needed to heat bitumen underground. Some companies are experimenting with the use of solvents and chemicals.
If Acceleware succeeds with its technology, the company could branch out into areas such as hydrogen production or grain drying.
“We think we picked the toughest application first and that’s the one that’s 500 meters underground,” Clark said.
Oon-Doo Baik, a University of Saskatchewan engineer who studies radiofrequency heating of biomaterials, said it can be an “energy-efficient process, but it’s a sophisticated process.” There must be a good knowledge of the electromagnetic field, for example, to use the technology effectively and correctly in related industries, he said, in an email response on radio frequency heating.
Most oil sands companies have set a goal of reaching net zero by 2050, while the federal government is expected to introduce an emissions limit for the industry later this year.
Oil sands operations in northern Alberta account for about 11% of Canada’s total carbon emissions. The federal government expects the oil sector to reduce emissions by more than 40% by 2030.