Alberta’s nano-revolution struggles to take hold

An industry based on small science grapples with a big problem

February 06, 2012

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Steve Petrone, chief executive and technology officer with Edmonton-based Quantiam Technologies
Photograph by Jessica Fern Facette

As a researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, Sushanta Mitra wanted to know what substances worked best to coax oil out of porous rock samples. His experiments using traditional core flooding techniques – in which water, say, or a polymer is injected into a small cylinder of sandstone or carbonate in order to force trapped oil out – were funded by India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, but they invariably left the researcher grasping.

No matter what substance was injected into a rock sample, the results offered only a partial window into the mechanics of enhanced oil recovery. It was impossible to tell, for instance, how an introduced fluid behaved – and therefore how much oil might be recovered – once it was injected into the microscopic crevices and pathways that contain molecules of oil and gas. “Everything is operating at the pore scale, but there was no means to look at it,” Mitra says.

That has changed. In a lab at the National Institute for Nanotechnology in Edmonton, Mitra, now the director of the Micro and Nano-scale Transport Laboratory at the University of Alberta, is toiling on a research frontier. “Our slogan is small is big,” he says, peering into a microscope, which magnifies something resembling a high-tech stick of Spearmint chewing gum.

Two syringe pumps are plugged in to one side of the rectangular device. A narrow tube runs from the other side to a small volumetric cylinder that contains a sample of lubricant oil. In reality, the rectangular strip is a 35- by five-millimeter silicon chip. In practical terms, through a process that bears a passing resemblance to the plot of the 1989 movie, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, it represents a completely novel approach to reservoir engineering. Think of it, Mitra says, as a miniature, pocket-sized oil reservoir. “It took us quite a while to figure out.”

At the click of mouse, the associate professor injects lubricant oil from one of the syringe pumps into the chip. Another click introduces water, which displaces the oil and mimics, at an infinitesimal scale, an extraction technique used globally to revive mature oilfields. “We should be able to see what amount of storage is happening, what amount of rejection is happening, within this reservoir,” he says, glancing up at a computer screen, where the microscopic interaction is taking place.

The information can then be used to predict a recovery curve for a given reservoir. “This opens a huge window of probing at the pore scale,” Mitra beams. “Even if I’m able to provide the industry with the know-how that, with this fluid, they’re able to get even five to 10 per cent higher recovery rates, if you translate that into number of barrels per day, it’s huge.”

“It will really take us to the next level,” the researcher adds. “Conventional recovery can only do so much.”

 

Such is the promise of nanotechnology. Yet those who would transform Alberta’s energy sector into a hub of “smart” innovation based on the commercial application of materials science face an old challenge. It is a modern variation on a theme that has confounded successive provincial governments since the first shovelfuls of bitumen were dug up north of Fort McMurray.

“We are reluctant to invest in technology,” says Steve Petrone, chief executive and technology officer with Edmonton-based Quantiam Technologies Inc., which manufactures nano-scale surface coatings that reduce energy consumption and improve the running life of furnaces at large petrochemical plants. “We make money so easily through oil and oil sands that technologically we’re stuck in a time warp. That tends to make you a bit lazy to innovate.”

The tendency was flagged in last spring’s Report of the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy, which singled out knowledge industries like nanotechnology as strategic pillars that could help reduce “the vulnerability that comes with heavy reliance on energy sales to only one market.” The Emerson Report (named for lead author and former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson) aligned with a trajectory set four years earlier by the Alberta government under then-minister of advanced education and technology Doug Horner.

In 2007, the province earmarked $130 million over five years to fund research and development of new commercial applications that support “traditional economic strengths” as part of its Nanotechnology Strategy. The goal at the time was to stoke investment in a global market estimated to be worth $1 trillion by 2020. Canada could grab a 10 per cent, or $100 billion, share of the total, the blueprint said. Alberta’s share would be two per cent, leading to some $20 billion in new “economic activity” by 2020, policy makers hoped.

A followup “map” of the province’s nanotechnology assets published in 2009 by Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF) shows there is a long way to go if that target is to be met. In 2007, nanotechnology comprised an estimated $800 million of a nominal $260 billion provincial gross domestic product. The total represents one half of one per cent of the global nanotechnology market, valued at the time by Lux Research at $147 billion, according to the AITF publication.

In order to grow, industry participants say the province must do a better job at narrowing the so-called innovation gap, known inauspiciously among entrepreneurs and university researchers as the valley of death for its habit of killing off fledgling companies and novel concepts. “There needs to be an appreciation that the innovation chain goes beyond the first one or two phases where both our universities and government labs excel,” Petrone says, visibly annoyed at what he perceives as a casual approach to innovation. “For us to continue to pump money at the front end and do nothing to address all of the weak links to get to a final product to take commercial is a waste of time.”

 

Much has been done to stimulate commercial growth in nanotechnology, says Dan Djukich, nanoAlberta’s executive director. The agency is responsible for implementing the provincial nanotech strategy. The $130 million put up by legislators in Edmonton, for instance, included $8 million to help create the Alberta Centre for Advanced Microsystems and Nanotechnology Products, or ACAMP for short, in 2008. (Ottawa chipped in $3.5 million for ACAMP.)

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