How science is showing the oil patch the way – by Shawn McCarthy and Carrie Tait – (Globe and Mail – January 16, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

OTTAWA and CALGARY — Moments before Rick George, who led Suncor Energy Inc. for 20 years, was named Canadian Energy Person of the Year in October, 2011, he declared himself “mad keen about technology” in the oil sands industry.

His words were a hip twist on a mantra he, along with his peers around the globe, have long supported: that technological advancements will ease some of the most environmentally challenging issues facing the energy industry, such as eliminating tailings ponds and reducing water use.

And new engineering techniques are about more than greening the energy industry. Teams are constantly experimenting, trying to find new ways to get more oil and gas out of the ground. Hydraulic fracturing, which revived depleted oil and gas fields across North America, as well as made new ones viable, stands out as a prime example in the past five years. Fracking is now as well known as old-school jack pumps, albeit more controversial.

That’s the catch with technology. It is a slow process, and not everyone wants development in the energy sector to flourish. But until alternatives become widespread, the energy industry will continue to rethink its techniques, looking for technological breakthroughs – big and small.

Here are some technologies in use and ideas scientists, engineers, geologists, and executives are working on, in hopes the faith and enthusiasm for technology they share with Mr. George proves fruitful.

Microwaving bitumen

Harris Corp., which specializes in voice, data and video networks, is one of the last companies you would expect to be rooting around in the dirt around Fort McMurray, Alta.. The 117-year old Florida company, which made a technological breakthrough when it invented a way to automatically feed sheet paper into printing presses rather than doing it by hand, thinks electromagnetic energy may transform the oil sands. Essentially, it wants to microwave bitumen buried deep underground.

Harris is working with Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Inc. and Laricina Energy Ltd. The technology threads an antenna radiating electromagnetic heat down a wellbore, making the surrounding bitumen less viscous and able to move up a second wellbore with the help of solvents. If it works perfectly, the antenna would replace the need for steam, cutting water use and reducing energy needed to heat the bitumen. So far, the consortium has proven it can melt bitumen, albeit only 15 metres below the surface, rather than at typical in-situ depths and less consistent reservoir quality.

Advances in fracking

A Calgary service company, Packers Plus, holds a dozen patents for hydraulic fracturing technology that allows companies to open oil and gas seams at multiple points along the drill bore without having to case the entire hole in cement.

Packers pioneered its open-hole, multistage fracking approach nearly a decade ago in the Barnett play, the first of the massive shale gas developments that have revolutionized the oil and gas business in North America. The company is now active in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field and in northeastern British Columbia.

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