Researcher seeks tiny answers for Alberta’s energy challenges by Chris Nelson, August 9, 2015, Calgary Herald
Steven Bryant is the first Canada Excellence Research Chair at the University of Calgary. He’s leading a team working on developing new ways to use nanoscale technology to improve the efficiency of in-situ oil recovery in the oilsands.
It’s among the biggest problems facing the future prosperity of Alberta, yet the solution could be miniscule.
It’s why one of the world’s leading experts in unconventional resource extraction has taken up a seven-year challenge of reshaping the province’s energy industry.
A $10-million federal government award, matched by the University of Calgary, [Why zero money for Canadians poisoned and their water ruined by the unconventional oil and gas industry?] to set up a Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs lured Steven Bryant to the city from Texas. Here he’ll lead a diverse and expert team in attempting to find ways of massively reducing the environmental impact of oil extraction. [How many decades too late? Is this really about reducing environmental impacts or more about using public funds to increase private oil and gas industry profits?]
Bryant is a renowned expert in nanotechnology and materials science research. Since arriving last August he has been busy integrating a team of researchers from across the university campus with the ultimate aim of drastically changing the future development of the Alberta oilsands in particular.
Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) is increasingly becoming the most popular method of extracting close to one million barrels of oil a day from the oilsands. The process involves drilling horizontal underground wells and forcing in steam, which then loosens the oil [and frac’s the caprock] before it is pumped to the surface. The amount of energy needed to turn that water into the steam involved is immense.
However, by dispersing various miniscule particles into the water used in the process, it allows the resulting steam to become chemically thinner and able to give off much more heat, making it much more effective in first loosening and then allowing the recovery of the oil from the sand in which it was caked. [What does this “brute force ignorant” experiment do to the caprock that’s supposed to keep the toxic crud from spewing out of control into drinking water aquifers and the surface?]
“What people have figured out to do with particles from the material science side has opened up a new tool box in general for oil and gas,” said Bryant. “There are two interesting features — what you can make those particles out of for alternate ways of heating up the reservoir and the other is what you can coat them with. It is possible to attach all sorts of chemicals and that allows you to do all kinds of interesting things.
“There are a variety of things we can do with those two features including using less steam, which means less energy. That currently comes from burning methane so consequently the CO2 emissions given off would be much reduced,” he added.
Before he arrived in Calgary, Bryant lived in Austin where he worked at the University of Texas as the Bank of America centennial professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. He is considered a pioneer in the fields of digital petro physics and the use of nanoparticles for engineering applications.
He and his wife, Nita Lou, have settled quickly in the city and while there are similarities with Austin they are both enjoying the milder summer weather as well as their new home alongside the Elbow River.
“This opportunity came along at the right time in our lives. It is hard to redesign yourself if you stay where you are, but now we are looking at doing new things in a new place in a new way,” he said.
“My wife has always wanted to stay near water so it is very nice to have this small strip of wilderness by the river almost and in the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers. Plus, I can see the mountains from my office at the university. It is such a wonderful environment.”
One thing hasn’t changed with Bryant — he still avoids commuting to work by car. It is something he has avoided for 30 years, instead either biking or using public transport. It’s both an environmental decision as well as a dislike of getting stuck in traffic.
“We do have a car but we don’t really use it,” he said.
Since arriving in Calgary a year ago and joining the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering department in the Schulich School of Engineering, Bryant, has been busy pulling together various experts at the university in a variety of fields and building up the lab facilities in which they will work. He has been impressed with the co-operation and expertise he’s found.
“The nice thing is that it is not just me showing up to do this. There’s been a lot of research going on in this university for some time. This is a good time to come in and augment that and, in this case, bring in some of the nanotechnology applications. We are hitting the ground running in terms of having a lot of people interested in doing this.
“We will see if we can reduce the impact of the in-situ oil recovery process in the oilsands and, in the longer term, come up with completely different ways of getting energy out of the oilsands. That is the big picture.”
Not a small feat, even for an expert in nanotechnology. [Emphasis added]
Nanoparticles with your frac’d cap rock anyone?
“We should probably stop fracking there right now”