A University of Calgary scientist says his virtual reality lab will be key to developing cheaper and greener methods of oil extraction.

Dr. John Chen's team of researchers works with a number of oil and gas companies to test out new ideas using innovative modelling and simulation techniques rather than performing these tests in the field. 

The group of researchers and scholars have developed a virtual reality interface that allows engineers to build simulations of drilling sites or reservoir layers.

'We want to make Canada competitive'

It's the only lab of its kind in Canada, said Chen, who works with the Calgary Centre for Innovative Technology at the Schulich School of Engineering.

"Essentially we want to make Canada competitive in the world," said Chen. "Nowadays the one goal is to reduce operations costs. Companies have lots of ideas — new ideas — they wanted to be tested in the lab." 

Dr. John Chen

Dr. John Chen leads the virtual reality lab at the University of Calgary. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Chen's team has managed to speed up simulation techniques from months to minutes, saving companies even more time and money. The lab boasts virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D modelling capabilities.  

"At today's oil prices it's very difficult to make the current technology economic for oilsands recovery," said Tom Harding, a senior advisor for research and development at Nexen.

Mathematical models

Developing new technology and recovery processes starts with experimental work in the lab. That data is put into simulation models, and that's where Chen and his team start to help.

"They have these mathematical models that we can use to demonstrate how our new recovery processes will work in the subsurface," explained Harding. "The equipment that we have here allows visualisation...of the new recovery processes."

Tom Harding

Tom Harding, a senior advisor of research and development at Nexen, says Chen's lab can save oil companies millions of dollars in testing. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Without this technology, Harding said it could take years for a company to figure out they'd made a mistake or weren't doing something right in the field.

Extracting gains from oilsands

The technology used in Chen's lab isn't necessarily new, Harding said, but improvements to computers over the years have made it significantly more useful.

"It's extremely important for us as Albertans and Canadians to be able to monetize the oilsands resources," Harding said.

"If we can develop new recovery processes that are economic, instead of the situation we have today, where no new projects are going ahead because they're uneconomic at today's oil prices... then we can go forward with new project developments."

He said everyone benefits from the technology, particularly if it can be done in an "environmentally sound way."

With files from Colleen Underwood