Calgary-Based Tech Firm Partners with GE In Radio-Frequency Oil Sands Extraction Trial
Acceleware is piloting its patent-pending radiowave system to liberate bitumen from Alberta's oil sands
With oil prices still coasting below the realm of profitability for many oil companies, the industry is laser-focused on shrinking its cost margins any way that it can. Today, almost all of those gains are happening in the technological efficiency space. And that’s where we find Acceleware, a Calgary-based clean-tech and seismic-imaging company that is hoping to change the way oil sands firms get heavy oil out of the ground in Western Canada.
In mid-June, Acceleware joined forces with GE to launch a pilot project for Acceleware’s patent-pending radio wave-heated in situ oil sands technology, which, according to the company, could save oil sands producers billions in fuel and water costs associated with traditional steam heating. Mike Tourigny, Acceleware’s vice-president in charge of commercializing the radio frequency (RF) process, says the progression from seismic imaging to oil production technology was a natural one for the company. “We’ve taken 10 years of our expertise in electro-magnetic modelling and brought that into the oil sector,” Tourigny says. “The fundamental thing here is that this is a way to produce oil sands and any heavy oil with less power, which leads to less greenhouse gas and lower costs, and it is an opportunity for the Alberta oil industry specifically, but it applies to other oil deposits around the world. We are aware of the image that the oil sands have gotten as dirty oil; not only can we make that clean oil—as clean as oil can be—but we can bring some profit back to the industry.”
Tourigny estimates the savings that RF technology can provide is a 66-percent cost reduction over the industry average for SAGD. Where GE comes in, is in the provision of next generation silicon-carbide electronics for the RF system, which Acceleware believes will be ready for wide-scale adoption in three to five years. “It’s like an inside-out microwave,” Tourigny says. “In the same way that your microwave heats your food, it heats evenly; that’s how this technology works. It’s going to heat the water in the formation and then that water is going to warm the oil and the oil will move, so the big advantage is that those radio waves travel through oil and rock evenly.”
Of course, radio-frequency technology is nothing new in the oil sands. In fact, it’s been studied and tested for decades. But Acceleware is hopeful that having the R&D muscle of a major corporation like GE behind this project will help advance the technology well beyond where it is today. And in the meantime, Acceleware isn’t resting on its laurels, either. The company’s oil and gas applications remain strong in the areas of electromagnetic modelling, seismic reservoir imaging and complex computer analytics. Should the RF heating technology take off, it’ll be just one more technology that Acceleware can add to its oilfield suite.
As important as saving on costs is today, saving on greenhouse gas emissions is nearly as essential—and failing to do so can be nearly as expensive. Because Acceleware’s RF heating technology is fully electric, it has the potential to cut traditional SAGD emissions by 50 to 100 percent. “We are more energy efficient in delivering heat to the reservoir because there’s less losses due to steam travelling down a pipe and we can do it with less energy, Tourigny says. “Even if we burn gas to get the electricity, we can reduce greenhouse emissions by 50 percent. But if we have a way to run it off solar or hydro—a clean renewable source—we’d be talking about 100-percent reduction.”
Founded in 2004, Acceleware was initially focused on the electronics design industry before pivoting towards the biomedical field. By 2009, the company launched an exploratory team to investigate RF heating in heavy oil production, and by 2013 Acceleware exited the biomedical field to focus on oil and gas imaging and extraction. “We do have a background in electromagnetic modelling and computing— high performance computing—and we still do work in those parts of the business,” Tourigny says. “But our big focus on the oil and gas side is advanced seismic imaging software and RF heating and that’s where this comes in.”