Analysis

Blasting the earth with radio waves and one possible future for the oilsands

A look at how a Calgary company is launching a pilot project to test electromagnetic heating of bitumen in the oilsands.

Think of it as microwaving the earth: An old idea meets some new technology

Acceleware’s Mike Tourigny poses in front of the company’s office building in Calgary’s Victoria Park neighbourhood. (Caroline Wagner)

EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of our ongoing Road Ahead series, we are looking at companies that are experimenting with new energy technologies.


Anyone who has a microwave oven at home knows that those invisible electromagnetic waves are darn good for heating things up.

Turns out, the same is true of radio waves. And that's why a Calgary company called Acceleware is planning to blast radio frequency deep into Alberta's oilsands: so they can heat up the bitumen — melt and soften that thick oil — and then slurp it out.

Think of it as microwaving the earth.

"The big advantage off the top is that we can do this with a lot lower cost, both operating and capital costs," says Mike Tourigny, an executive with Acceleware who's working on commercializing the technology.

"But we can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We don't need to use any external freshwater and we don't need to use any solvent. So we're very simple and clean."

Simple and clean are not words we often hear associated with Alberta's oilsands. But Acceleware claims its technology could address two of the oilsands' biggest problems: the enormous upfront costs involved and the environmental effects of the extraction.

Here's the catch: the technology hasn't been fully proven yet. And, even if the company does demonstrate that everything works, there's still a long road ahead to commercialize the new technology.

Steam heat

On the face of it, the microwave idea seems simple enough.

Tourigny explains that they shoot the radio frequency energy into the geologic formation, where it starts to heat up all the water molecules. The water then turns to steam, which transfers its heat to the rock and oil.

And then the oil, he says, starts to move into the producer well, where pipes, like giant straws, suck it up.

Simple, yes. And it may also sound familiar.

The idea has been around for a long time. The Union Oil Company first applied for a patent on an apparatus designed to heat up oil and gas way back in 1948.

People have been tinkering with the idea ever since. It's been poked, prodded, tested and ruminated over for seven decades. Though much of that work never got past the pages of an academic journal, the idea has been gaining interest here in Alberta. In 2015, Suncor began a pilot project using radio frequency heating at its Dover site in the oilsands.

The difference between its technology and Acceleware's is that Suncor also injected a solvent to help mobilize the bitumen. Acceleware's technique uses just radio frequency, no solvent. Different paths to the same idea.

If microwaving the earth seems like a strange approach to oil extraction, consider the alternatives.

High stakes experiments

There's a lot of oil up there in Alberta's oilsands — 165 billion barrels of it, according to the provincial energy regulator.

But the trouble is, it's really hard to get it out.

When the oilsands are near the surface, you can dig them up. That's what causes the infamous strip mines near Fort McMurray. But a mere 20 per cent of the oilsands are actually close enough to the surface to be mined.

Over the years, many ideas have been considered to get at that inaccessible oil, from detonating a nuclear bomb under the ground to setting the bitumen on fire, in hopes of loosening up the resource.

It was the large-scale commercialization of steam assisted drilling (SAGD) in the mid-1990s that very effectively separated oil from sand and greatly increased the amount of accessible oil in the region. And it was SAGD that effectively cracked open the oilsands and quadrupled Canada's accessible reserves.

Pipes carry oil, steam and natural gas through a forest at the Cenovus Foster Creek SAGD oilsands operations near Cold Lake, Alta. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

It's that kind of innovation that technology-minded oilpatch execs continue to chase, with the added complication of searching for ways to reduce the oilsands' greenhouse gas emissions.

SAGD is effective at extraction but uses both a lot of natural gas and a lot of water to produce oil. So anyone who says they can take steam out of the picture is bound to create a buzz. That's why this microwave idea has people interested.

"The elimination of water and steam," says Bryan Remillard, oilsands manager with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, "would be a … game-changing type of technology for the industry."

But not everyone's buying the microwave idea, or the suggestion that it could take out the steam altogether.

"I think the idea of getting something heated to the point where it would flow all the way to the surface using RF technology is not likely to be very successful," says Michal Moore, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, and now visiting professor at Cornell.

"However," the energy economist adds, "heating it so that you used half as much of the steam, or that you used it much later in the process, probably does have value if you can do it efficiently."

So, can they?

Seismic software

If you're picturing a gang of weather-beaten roughnecks at the helm of Acceleware, think nerdier.

The company is all about high performance computing. It develops software, and helps other developers speed up their own programs.

While working on some seismic imaging software for the oilpatch, they got interested in the problems of high costs and greenhouse gas emissions in the oilsands. Thus began their near-decade-long experimentation with the idea of radio frequency heating.

A diagram showing how Acceleware’s RF XL radio frequency heating technology works. (Acceleware)

They started with a computer simulation.

"Just having that horsepower to predict at a very granular level what happens when you put a whole bunch power of into a small space, at the start" says Tourigny, "has really helped to be able to develop the technology and find more efficient ways to get it into the ground, without melting things it shouldn't melt."

Melting things it shouldn't melt, you ask?

Sounds a tiny bit worrying.

Melting only what should melt

The idea that may have seemed so simple a couple minutes ago (zapping the earth) is actually highly complex.

If you ever leave anything in the microwave too long, the sizzling, rubbery mess will quickly remind you just how powerful those waves can be. The same is true for radio waves when you beam them underground.

They have to be powerful, because the waves have a long way to travel to get to the good stuff. Hundreds of metres. And it needs to be hot. At deeper pressures, it can get up to 250 C.

"A lot of the early tests failed because they would overheat the wellbore, and collapse the wellbore, and melt everything," Tourigny explains. Which is why the idea made a good candidate for computer simulation. It allowed them to try different systems without having to build them.

Acceleware’s Mike Tourigny explains how the company’s RF XL radio frequency technology works. (Caroline Wagner)

Even so, it took time to find the right recipe in the simulation.

"We kept hitting on some barriers that just were like, 'OK, you can't get enough power down there, you're losing too much power here, this won't work and it'll never make sense economically'," says Tourigny.

"And when we got to this design, all of it fell together."

They had the concept. Now they just needed the proof.

From model to real world

Acceleware had done some initial testing at a lab at the University of Calgary, but it was still too early for the company to take their technology up to the oilsands.

So, instead of heading north to the muskeg, they built their own oilsands reserve at a test site in Didsbury. The "ditch-test," as Acceleware calls it, was a 1/20th scale model of the real deal.

First, they dug a 50-metre-long ditch. Then they filled it with sand and added water. They didn't add any bitumen, as the main point was to see how hot it would get, and whether it would match what their simulations predicted.

Then they added the radio frequency.

It worked.

Their predictions matched. The recipe passed its first real-world test.

But Acceleware still has a long way to go before it can break out the champagne. The next step for the company is a commercial-scale test.

Acceleware just announced this past summer that it's partnering with Prosper Petroleum to set up a radio frequency heating apparatus at the company's Rigel site northwest of Fort McMurray.

An illustration of the above-ground appearance of a traditional, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) plant (at left) and Acceleware’s radio frequency heating (RF XL) central processing facility (at right). (Acceleware)

It's been a long and expensive journey. In this case, the price tag comes in between $16 million and $20 million.

Acceleware got a pair of $5-million grants from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, and Emissions Reduction Alberta. And the company also just announced a $2.5-million US deal with Advanced Micro Devices, taking the cash in exchange for software engineering resources and consulting services. Acceleware plans to use the money largely to finance the pilot project.

But getting everyone on board with a new way of doing things could be tricky in an industry that can move at glacial speed.

Upfront costs and risk aversion 

"It's such a capital intensive, upfront capital cost with risk associated upfront," says Remillard at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

In other words, you need to spend money with no guarantee it will pay off. And that, according to a 2015 report by the Council of Canadian Academies, can scare off some oilsands investors.

"Risk aversion may lock in existing technologies and delay deployment of environmentally superior alternatives," the report reads.

It adds that the lead time for technology development in the industry can be as long as 10 to 20 years.

The industry — which normally sees innovation in baby steps — has seen examples of giant technological leaps. But whether or not radio frequency heating will revolutionize the oilsands is still a question mark.

Suncor says it will release the results from its ongoing pilot project late this year or next. Acceleware and Prosper won't even break ground until winter.

But if these technologies work, they could do more than make money for Acceleware and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They could also offer a cleaner alternative, and help companies access some of the more difficult oilsands reserves in Alberta.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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