CALGARY — The same technology used to search for signs of ancient life on Mars could be key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the Canadian oilsands.
At least that's what members of the Pathways Alliance — an industry consortium of this country's six largest oilsands companies — appear to believe. On Thursday, the group announced Impossible Sensing Energy, the Calgary-based affiliate of U.S. space exploration company Impossible Sensing, as the winner in an industry-sponsored global competition aimed at helping to accelerate the widescale use of steam-reducing technologies in oilsands operations.
The company won with a proposal to use optical imaging technology, adapted from its Sherloc system currently installed on the Mars Rover, in an oilsands application.
Just as optical imaging can be used to search for faint traces of potential carbon-based past life on Mars, it can also detect precise amounts of carbon-based solvents in the oil production stream, said Ariel Torre, co-founder and CEO of Impossible Sensing Energy.
He added space exploration is not unlike the oilsands in that both operate in extremely remote environments under harsh climate conditions. Any technology that is used must be extremely sensitive, but also be able to essentially work on its own, without an operator.
"A lot of the constraints that NASA has are extremely similar to the constraints oil and gas has," Torre said.
Oilsands companies currently use massive amounts of natural gas to produce steam for in situ (deep below the surface) oilsands mining. The steam loosens up the viscous bitumen enough to allow it to be pumped to the surface.
Wes Jickling — vice-president of technology development with COSIA, the innovation arm of Pathways Alliance — said the industry has long known that solvents, such as propane and butane, can act similarly to steam in bitumen production. If solvents could be used to replace steam in oilsands production, the amount of natural gas consumed by the industry would decline dramatically.
"We’re looking at a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, all the way up to 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in some cases, by using these solvents. So the potential is huge," Jickling said.
Another potential benefit is that solvents injected with or instead of steam into oilsands reservoirs can later be recovered from the pumped bitumen and recycled to be used all over again.
However, a report released last year by green energy think-tank the Pembina Institute said that solvent use in the oilsands is "promising on paper" but comes with technical and cost limitations.
"The economics of using solvent with steam can be challenging in low crude price cycles when the costs of deploying and recovering solvents is higher than revenues from the incremental production," the report said.
That's why Pathways sponsored the global contest, Jickling said — to try to find technology that can accurately measure, in real-time, the amount of solvents recovered in oilsands production. Effectively and affordably measuring and identifying solvents for recycling, without having to deploy personnel or stop production, could be a game-changer.
The ultimate goal is for Impossible Sensing Energy to install its technology as a pilot project at a Pathways Alliance member company's oilsands site.
"This whole piece of work started because of a tough question that we needed answers to," Jickling said. “This is one of the big science questions we need to solve to get this (solvent use) out and widely used across the industry.”
Solvent use is just one of the technologies the six member companies of the Pathways group are exploring as part of their pledge to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions from production by 22 million tonnes by 2030 and to reach net-zero by 2050.
The key plank in the Pathways plan is a proposed carbon capture and storage network in northern Alberta, which could see member companies invest $16.5 billion before 2030, but the group is also planning an additional $7.6 billion in spending on other initiatives such as energy efficiency, electrification of engines and more.
Environmental groups have previously criticized Pathways for not moving fast enough with some of its proposed projects, particularly in light of last year's record-high oil prices.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.