Alberta Innovates streamlines energy research and innovation
Bright ideas get on the fast track to commercial use with new agency made up of former Alberta Energy Research Institute and the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority
There’s a blunt way to describe the lag between laboratory research and commercialization of new technology that polite experts call the innovation gap. “It’s called the valley of death as well,” says Eddy Isaacs, chief of Energy and Environment Solutions in the newly minted Alberta Innovates apparatus. “Universities don’t go there and industry doesn’t really go there because of the risk of new technology. It poses a risk, let’s even say, to their shareholders.”
The no-go zone isn’t unique to Alberta. “It’s pervasive,” Isaacs says. Policy-makers everywhere run into the gap between bright ideas and practical use. The provincial government here aims to leap the hurdle with the creation, as of Jan. 1, 2010, of Alberta Innovates.
The new structure is billed as a streamlined approach to devising – but especially trying out – new technologies. As the prototype for the entire organization, Energy and Environment Solutions combines the Alberta Energy Research Institute and the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority. “Those were in large part the templates for what we’ve done,” says Advanced Education and Technology Minister Doug Horner.
In other branches of the amalgamation, the former home of energy-related inquiry – the Alberta Research Council – falls under the realigned Technology Futures portfolio, which also includes nanotechnology and genomics. “I think the energy sector is going to be very well served by Alberta Innovates,” the minister says.
The consolidation doesn’t signal radical departures from previous agency mandates, Isaacs assures. The shift does, however, inject new urgency into somewhat tired concepts like stewardship and sustainability. “We need to be a lot more sustainable, a lot more responsible on environmental matters,” Isaacs says, citing both carbon control and water use as areas up for analysis. “It’s bringing those two issues together to the forefront much better than we could have in the past.”
The new approach includes a practical tool called the Alberta Connector. Horner likens the apparatus to a concierge service for entrepreneurs. Loosely modeled on technology clusters pioneered in California’s Silicon Valley, the connector promises to help move ideas along from drawing boards through independent testing to commercial pilot projects, Horner says. “That’s really the end game for us. We’re in it so we can create wealth in the province.” The service will also steer inventors through the fine points of business development. Engineers don’t always make the best venture capitalists, he observes.
A key piece of Energy and Environment Solutions will be the creation of a sustainability index. Isaacs says the idea is to establish a sector-wide benchmark to gauge advances in environmental policy and practices. Obvious improvements entail reducing the amount of fresh water used in extracting bitumen or decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) with carbon capture and storage. Elsewhere, other benchmarks could readily crop up in university classrooms, Isaacs points out. That could mean teaching sustainable engineering practices to graduate students, for example.
It’s tempting to give the innovation overhaul a computer-age nickname such as Oil Sands 2.0. Commercial trials of next generation technology are increasingly front and center. Isaacs recites successes with verve – chief among them an expanding array of underground production technologies.
Schemes that use thermal heating, of the sort Calgary-based E-T Energy is pioneering in the Athabasca oil sands region, as well as those using toe-to-heel air injection (THAI), promise to reduce carbon emissions and provide access to hard-to-reach reserves. The technologies cut steam use, the burning of natural gas and GHG emissions. “On those three counts, I think [the trials] are going well,” Isaacs says.
Newer technologies for upgrading bitumen into refinery-ready synthetic light oil also loom large. Isaacs points to Calgary’s ETX Systems, which has made strides perfecting a rapid coking system for separating out the heaviest ingredients of raw bitumen. The process could herald higher yields and – increasingly a must in today’s world – fewer emissions.
Industry’s place in the innovation chain is to pick up on the advances that the government agencies demonstrate to be practical. “Our role is really to identify the breakthroughs that are possible,” Isaacs says. “Ultimately it’s industry that needs to implement them. I think that’s going to be critical.”
Another priority for the recalibrated agency is to ensure technology informs policy, as opposed to the other way around. As politicians wake up to an industrial landscape colored by the lofty rhetoric on display at last year’s United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, Isaacs says it’s crucial for policy-makers to grasp technology’s role in the emissions reduction debate. Otherwise, the innovation chief warns, meaningful benchmarks might ring hollow. “You set it up and nobody can meet your targets and it goes nowhere. It’s about achieving that balance between what’s achievable today and what could be achieved tomorrow.”
Isaacs sees promise in projects featuring renewable and emerging energy technologies. He highlights the City of Edmonton’s efforts to convert municipal waste into biofuels as a progressive step for alternative energy sources.
A commercial facility that converts the provincial capital’s solid residential waste – stuff that isn’t recycled or composted – into methanol and eventually ethanol should be operational by the summer of 2011. The project will enable the city to divert 90 per cent of its garbage away from landfills, and has the additional benefit of reducing the use of food as feedstock for biofuels.
Isaacs says emerging unconventional processes like underground coal gasification add yet another dimension to the current mix of alternatives that the province deems viable. “It’s emerging but it hasn’t happened,” he says.
Whether or not the organizational overhaul that created Alberta Innovates will yield more money for commercial pilots remains to be seen. Good ideas will continue to attract investors regardless of prevailing economic conditions, Horner maintains.
“What better time to do it, really?” the minister asks. “If you’re looking at ways to survive in a recession, you have to be innovative.”
To ensure patents don’t fall by the wayside, Horner has tasked each section of Alberta Innovates with developing a yearly business plan in collaboration with industry committees. “That’s how we’re going to measure them.”
On the energy front, Isaacs is counting on his board of directors – chaired by former Syncrude Canada chief executive officer Eric Newell – to help build a case for investment in innovation. Alberta’s history is steeped in scientific endeavor, but carbon constraints and heightened scrutiny threaten to make resource extraction an unpopular line of work if the province neglects environmental energy improvements. “There’s a really good need to innovate and stay ahead of the curve,” Isaacs says. “If you’re behind the curve, you’re not going to stay in business.”