Ideas for building a more energy-efficient energy industry
Meet three small companies with technologies that could make a big impact on cleaning up the oil and gas industry
In the oil and gas industry, change is constant. New technologies coax large stores of oil and gas out of the ground that were once thought impossible to extract. Regulations are often revised or created by policy-makers of the day in response to sector activities. The list goes on. But as the industry comes under increasing scrutiny to reduce the environmental impact of its work, greening the processes and methods it uses to extract and produce fossil fuels has never been more important.
Some of that innovation comes from the big companies, but not all of it. Here, Alberta Oil profiles three small-to-medium-sized Canadian startups who are advancing ingenious ideas that could help reduce the oil patch’s greenhouse gas emissions, make it more energy efficient and help it treat wastewater.
Every living organism has an enzyme that helps it exhale. That enzyme, carbonic anhydrase, lives in your digestive tract and essentially makes sure your body can physically manage carbon dioxide. Now, that enzyme is being deployed by a Canadian company in a bid to manage huge amounts of carbon emissions. “We call our approach an industrial lung for carbon capture,” says Glenn Kelly, chairman of Quebec City’s CO2 Solutions Inc. In the quest for a cost- and energy-effective way to capture large amounts of carbon, its biology-based method is turning heads in the oil sands – a sector that emitted 48 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 according to Alberta’s Department of Energy.
Using existing flue and smokestack infrastructure, as well as solvent-based technology, CO2 Solutions adds one step to the standard carbon scrubbing process: it adds carbonic anhydrase to the solvent. Flue or chimney gas is pumped through a column for solvent scrubbing and is met with the enzyme-infused solvent, which cleans the air and leaves a CO2-rich solvent behind. That solvent is heated in a separate regenerator column, and is then used to strip further emissions of CO2, which keeps the cycle going. For the oil and gas industry, the technology could lower the price of the high-cost of capturing carbon that requires expensive equipment and a great deal of energy to regenerate the solvent.
“We throw a bit of enzyme in there and those column sizes come down,” explains Kelly. That’s because enzyme-rich solvents are very good at efficiently managing carbon, and so the process requires less space and energy to regenerate. According to Kelly, adding carbonic anhydrase to the process results in a 20 to 30 per cent overall cost reduction.
The idea for the enzyme-infused solvent came about at the end of the 1990s, when Sylvie Fradette, the company’s vice-president of research and development, was studying at Laval University. Her team knew about the carbon-managing enzyme, and it was around that time that carbon capture was receiving some industry buzz.
Their idea eventually led to CO2 Solutions being formed. The company first secured small contracts from the Department of National Defence to manage CO2 on submarines and in niche applications. In 2006, the company expanded its development program to focus on large-scale carbon capture from coal-fired power plants and other industrial applications.
Now it is directing its attention to the oil and gas industry, and in situ oil sands projects.
The company is currently working on a one year pilot project with a major oil sands producer (the name of the producer hasn’t been released) to use its enzyme technology to capture carbon emitted from natural gas combustion. In situ extraction methods like steam-assisted gravity drainage use natural gas to produce steam that is injected underground to loosen the bitumen from the rock. The bitumen is then sent above ground via wells.
With organizations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecasting that in situ oil sands production will grow from an average of one million barrels per day in 2012 to 3.5 million bpd by 2030, the sector’s appetite for natural gas will rise as well. And so will its carbon emissions – unless something can be done with the CO2.
The technology CO2 Solutions is working on could be an emissions buster for in situ producers, and the beauty of it is it isn’t new or unproven. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Kelly says. “The enzyme is being added to existing technology. We’re not having to rebuild things or introduce new techniques or engineering layouts. It’s like putting a new chip in your computer to make it go faster. It makes other technologies even better.”
If Bill Gates believes in your company, you’re probably onto something. Calgary-based Carbon Engineering Ltd. has been working – with millions of dollars in funding from angel investors, including Gates – for the past four years on a promising new carbon capture technology: one that captures and cleanses carbon dioxide directly from the air.
Formed in 2009, Carbon Engineering’s president (and former University of Calgary professor) David Keith knew there was an untapped opportunity in carbon capture. While carbon dioxide emissions come from industrial sources, a large portion of them also come from several other sources – vehicles on the road, airplanes, lawn mowers and the clear-cutting of trees. Carbon Engineering’s technology works to capture the large amounts of CO2 coming from
Carbon Engineering’s process uses its “air contactor” technology. Large amounts of air are ingested and passed through a chemical solution of caustic soda, which scrubs the carbon dioxide out of the air. In photos, Carbon Engineering’s air contactors look like towering sculptures made of huge fans, and the air that passes through them is returned to the atmosphere with 70 to 80 per cent of the CO2 in it removed. That removed carbon is then concentrated in a liquid solution, which becomes part of the cycle: it washes through the air contactor and is used to regenerate the chemical that captures the carbon.
The company’s technology has caught the eye of the financial sector – it recently secured $3 million in second-round financing from investors, and it has plans to build and operate a small scale pilot plant in northern Alberta within the next three years. That plant will prove if its technology can actually work at the scale that vendors say they’ll need.
While the company’s technology isn’t aimed at taking the oil and gas industry’s carbon emissions out of the air, it could still have a big impact on the oil patch. “We don’t live in a world yet where people are willing to pay you to take their emissions out of the air for them,” says Geoff Holmes, a research scientist at Carbon Engineering. “So what we have to do is find niches in which carbon dioxide from the air can be stored as an industrial product.” The Calgary company is planning to sell the CO2 that’s captured and distilled using air contactors for enhanced oil recovery, a process where the CO2 is injected into oilfields to recover oil that can’t be extracted using conventional methods. It can also be blended into high-carbon fuels as a low-carbon offset and it has potential to be used to feed algae to produce biofuel.
“A lot of companies try to develop some new, fancy material that opens a whole new industry or opportunity,” Holmes says. “We’ve tried to stay away from making gigantic leaps from new materials in the lab to large industrial scale equipment. We’ve really tried to build our technology on existing components and processes that already work.”
The oil and gas industry has a water problem. When dealing with the management and disposal of water that pools during mining and drilling, a lot can go wrong because it is hard to manage large amounts of saltwater effectively.
That’s where Vancouver’s Saltworks Technologies Inc. comes in. Founded in 2008, Saltworks is a water treatment provider that has developed two particularly useful technologies that tackle saltwater treatment at mining sites – the ElectroChem and SaltMaker.
ElectroChem removes salt from water using a plastic tower that’s layered with advanced ion exchange membranes and an electrical current. They work together to pull the salt out of the water stream. Water that needs treatment, like brackish groundwater or mine depressurization water, is pumped through the ElectroChem stack and treated. And when it’s paired with reverse osmosis, both processes are enhanced: when used on its own, reverse osmosis leaves scaling salts like calcium, magnesium and carbonate behind. But ElectroChem picks up the slack. “We can remove the salts from the water source, and the water being fed through reverse osmosis can operate more efficiently,” says Malcolm Man, vice-president of business development at Saltworks.
After using the ElectroChem, the brine that’s left after that process is easier to handle. The technology produces a more concentrated brine than reverse osmosis — an advantage for most oil and gas companies. Less brine produced through treating water means less of it to deal with, which is good for the environment and reduces the cost of getting rid of it.
The company’s second development, the SaltMaker, is billed as a “zero-liquid-discharge technology” that simply leaves behind fresh water and solid salts. Man says the SaltMaker is useful for processes like steam-assisted gravity drainage. When the organics that accumulate in steam generators are cleaned out, water “… comes out as a black, coffee-like [substance],” Man says. “We take that and feed it into the SaltMaker to produce freshwater and solid salts.” The SaltMaker operates on virtually any water source and is relatively low-cost, because it works at ambient temperatures and pressures.
When all of Saltworks’ technology works together, the technology is at its best. Man says the company treats oil sands mining depressurization water using both the ElectroChem and SaltMaker process, and they’re in the process of doing small scale tests on treating old TSG flow down water.
The focus, for now, is on consistent but slow growth — but that hasn’t kept the big names from pounding down their doors. Last year, Saltworks landed a major contract with NASA to develop water management solutions for the International Space Station.
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