Texas researcher tapped to clean up Canadian oilsands with nanotech

Rust nanoparticles could serve as possible means to heat bitumen in place of high pressure steam.

0 October 22, 2014
by Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Steven Bryant, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs at the University of Calgary

Steven Bryant, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs at the University of Calgary

CALGARY – Nanotechnology similar to that used to kill tumours in cancer patients could be adapted to improve in situ oil recovery in Alberta’s oilsands, says an international researcher.

Steven Bryant, a world-leading nanotechnology expert from the University of Texas in Austin, was introduced Thursday as the latest Canada Excellence Research Chair at the University of Calgary.

A federal energy research program awards world-renowned scientists and their teams up to $10 million over seven years to establish research programs.

“I don’t need to remind this audience of the world-class petroleum resource here in Alberta. I don’t need to remind this audience either of the litany of challenges associated with that resource,” Bryant said at a University of Calgary ceremony.

“What we want to do is reduce the environmental impact of existing development strategies to come up with entirely new ways to extract energy involving little or even no environmental impact.”

Bryant will receive $10 million from the federal government and another $10 million from the university to create a chair for materials engineering for unconventional oil reservoirs at the Schulich School of Engineering and Faculty of Science.

He said one avenue of research will be to use nanoparticles, about a thousand times smaller than red blood cells, to improve oil recovery by making steam injected into the ground even thinner.

“You can disperse these things in a liquid like water and they will stay dispersed. If you make these things out of ordinary iron oxide – which we call rust – and you apply an oscillating magnetic field, those particles will get hot, real hot,” said Bryant.

“They’re already using that phenomenon to kill tumour cells in patients with incredible specificity. We want to see if we can use the same phenomenon to get heat into the oilsands and recover energy that way.”

Steam-assisted gravity drainage oil recovery is most commonly used in the oilsands and is widely regarded as the future of their development. Finding a way to improve the process is critically important and could reduce the environmental impact, Bryant said.

Michelle Rempel, minister responsible for western economic diversification, said bringing Bryant to Calgary is a coup for the university and for the industry.

“It’s a big game-changer and it’s a win for the community,” she said.

“The remarkable thing about research like Dr. Bryant undertakes is it has the potential to make our primary industry more sustainable, more effective and more profitable.”

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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