How small science could reshape the oil sands

John Wolodko turns to nanotechnology to improve equipment reliability

February 06, 2012

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John Wolodko, director of MARIOS
Photograph by bluefish

John Wolodko is an industrial matchmaker. As director of the Materials and Reliability in Oil Sands consortium (MARIOS), it’s his job to pair big member companies like Imperial Oil Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. with small, Alberta-based suppliers, fabricators and technology providers to develop and test novel technologies that reduce maintenance costs in the bitumen belt. This year marks the introduction of nanotech firms to the consortium, which was founded in 2009 by Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.

Alberta Oil: How does MARIOS work?
John Wolodko:
It’s really looking at developing new information or knowledge and new technologies for the oil sands industry, but it’s focused on improving operational reliability, productivity and the run-life of equipment. It’s focused on the infrastructure.

AO: How pernicious is corrosion and wear and tear for oil sands operators?
It’s bad in the sense that it’s what they live with. The oil sands sector spends over $3 billion a year on maintenance, and then they lose another $5- to $7-billion in lost production, either due to scheduled maintenance or unscheduled downtime. The pie there is over $10 billion a year and that’s going to grow, especially when Imperial Oil’s [Kearl Lake project] and Total’s [Josyln mine] – which are two of our members – come online.

AO: How can nanotechnology help alleviate those costs?
Nanotechnology forms a platform across a number of applications. It’s not in and of itself an industry. It services a variety of applications. We’ve done a lot of great fundamental work in the province and development work, but the question is where is the uptake? Without a market push, which often doesn’t work, you have to find the applications that work and pull them into the market. It has a great potential to change things, but it has to find the right niche and find the right application.

AO: Can MARIOS be a catalyst for creating new nano-based companies?
I hope so from a nanotech side, absolutely. And time will tell. It’s already engaging the industry from the perspective of new materials getting into service, whether they’re nano- or non nano-based. It really is [about] proving out new technologies that can or cannot work.

AO: The province hopes nanotechnology will create $20 billion in new economic activity by 2020. Is that a realistic goal?
We’re trying to make that achievable by really connecting the right markets to the right people within nano. I’m hoping that we can achieve that target. I think this is the type of program we need to really bridge that gap between what our strengths are in the province, which is energy and oil sands, and this growing nanotech sector. If we can find that bridge and put them together then you have a win-win situation. It’s not like we’re creating nanotechnology for the electronics industry, which we really don’t have in Alberta.

Click here to read more about nanotechnology is Alberta.

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