Tar sands turn to NASA to cut emissions

Tar sands turn to NASA to cut emissions

(Calgary) Technology used to search for signs of ancient life on Mars could play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from Canada’s tar sands.

At least that’s what members of the New Pathways Alliance, an industry consortium of the country’s six largest tar sands companies, seem to believe. The group announced Thursday that Impossible Sensing Energy, a Calgary-based company affiliated with US space exploration company Impossible Sensing, has won an industry-sponsored global competition to participate in the accelerated use and scale of vapor abatement technologies in oil sands operations.

The company won the competition with its proposal to use optical imaging technology adapted from its Sherloc system, currently installed on the Perseverance rover, for application in the tar sands.

Just as optical imaging can be used to search for faint traces of possible carbon-based past lives on Mars, they can also detect precise amounts of carbon-based solvents in the oil production stream, explained Ariel Torre, co-founder and CEO of Detection energy impossible.

He added that space exploration is not unlike oil sands, as both operate in extremely isolated environments and in harsh weather conditions. Any technology used must be extremely sensitive, but also capable of essentially operating on its own, without an operator.

“Many of the NASA restrictions are extremely similar to the oil and natural gas restrictions,” Torre observed.

Oil sands companies currently use enormous amounts of natural gas to produce steam for in situ (far below the surface) extraction of oil sands. The steam makes the viscous bitumen thin enough to allow it to flow to the surface.

Wes Jickling, vice president of technology development at COSIA, the innovation arm of the New Paths Alliance, noted that the industry has long known that solvents such as propane and butane can play a similar role to steam in production. . bitumen If solvents could be used to replace steam in tar sands production, the amount of natural gas consumed by the industry would be dramatically reduced.

“We are looking for a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in some cases, through the use of these solvents. So the potential is huge,” Jickling said.

Another potential benefit is the ability to recover solvents injected with or instead of steam into tar sands reservoirs and reuse them.

an expensive idea

However, a report published last year by the Pembina Institute, a green energy think tank, found that the use of solvents in tar sands was “promising on paper” but was also associated with technical limitations and certain costs. .

“The economics of using solvents with steam can be difficult (to justify) in cycles of low crude prices, when the costs of implementing and recovering solvents outweigh the revenue from incremental production,” the report stressed.

That’s why the New Pathways Alliance sponsored the global competition, Jickling said, to try to find a technology that can accurately measure, in real time, the amount of solvents recovered from tar sands production. Efficiently and cost-effectively measuring and identifying solvents for recycling, without having to deploy staff or shut down production, could be a game changer.

The ultimate goal is for Impossible Sensing Energy to install its technology in a pilot project at an Alliance member company’s oil sands site.

“All of this work started with a difficult question that we needed answers to,” Jickling said. This is one of the great scientific questions that we must solve so that (the use of solvents) becomes general in the industry. »

Solvent use is just one of the technologies that the six member companies of the New Pathways Alliance are exploring as part of their commitment to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions from production of 22 million tons by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The group’s key component is a carbon capture and storage network project in northern Alberta, in which its members could invest $16.5 billion by 2030. The Alliance also plans additional spending of $7, 6 billion for other initiatives like energy efficiency, motor electrification and more.

Environmental groups have previously criticized the New Paths Alliance for not moving fast enough with some of its project proposals, particularly as oil prices hit record levels last year.

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