Oil Firms Are Proving Up New Technologies At Edmonton Lab

C-FER Technologies is looking to new horizons in renewable energy to help Alberta's oilfield companies

January 25, 2017

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C-FER technicians use the organization’s expansive Edmonton lab to test the limits of oilfield equipment
Photograph courtesy of C-FER

If there’s a piece of equipment that belongs in the oil field or along a pipeline route, chances are that C-FER Technologies has destroyed it. It’s all in the name of science at the formerly named Centre for Frontier Engineering Research, where creative destruction is often the best way to test the limits of a new technology and improve upon it. Working primarily in the oil and gas sector, C-FER serves upstream, midstream and downstream operations, with a focus on developing heavy oil and bitumen technologies, due to its Edmonton-based proximity to the oil sands.

“With pipeline leaks, they’re actually quite rare, so the vendors don’t have very much information about, say, what a subsurface leak of dilbit actually looks like.”

C-FER is a not-for-profit laboratory with a lot of buy-in from big industry operators like TransCanada, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge, and partnerships with the government through its parent organization Alberta Innovates. But the research lab also benefits the smaller upstarts looking to showcase a new product or service in front of potential make-or-break clients. “We actually pay the vendors to show up,” says C-FER business development director, Brian Wagg. “We cover some of their direct costs and then the majority is paid for by the big operating companies, because they’re the ones that need the technology and they’re the ones that are trying to make the purchasing decisions on which of these technologies is the best use for their application.”

It’s a win-win for everyone, whether you’re the developer of a new leak-detection software for pipelines, a major midstream company about to expand an existing pipeline project, or an Alberta government trying to ensure that a new pipeline project will have the most up-to-date spill protection tools onboard. “At the same time the operators are evaluating the technology, the vendors get something out of the tests that they can’t get anywhere else,” Wagg says. “With pipeline leaks, they’re actually quite rare, so the vendors don’t have very much information about, say, what a subsurface leak of dilbit actually looks like. So we are providing them that information, so they can go back and tune their systems and tune their algorithms to better detect these leaks—so the actual technology gets to be improved as well through this process.”

Apart from proving up new products, C-FER also helps set worldwide safety standards and explores the frontiers of new energy development. Geothermal energy has grown on C-FER’s radar in recent months, but not in the way that some Alberta oil well owners are becoming accustomed to hearing about it. Many abandoned Alberta oil wells can deliver enough geothermal heat to the surface to, say, warm a greenhouse or garage. But in places like Australia, South Korea and France, geothermal electricity pilot projects are being built on a much more powerful scale. With no greenhouse gas emissions and a very small physical footprint, geothermal energy can provide a reliable baseload electricity capacity, meaning it doesn’t depend on the sun shining or the wind blowing.

“Wherever you are, you can drill down and at some point it gets hot,” Wagg says. “Some places you have to go deeper than others, but you know there’s heat down there, so the trick is to build a heat exchanger in the ground.” Alberta is one of those places where geothermal drillers would have to drill deeper than most other places to find enough useable heat to generate steam from water. “We’re on top of some of the coldest rock in the world in Alberta,” Wagg says.

Plus, Alberta has an abundance of coal and natural gas and some hydropower, so finding a geothermal electricity solution isn’t as emergent here as in regions with little to no natural resources. However, Alberta does have more than its share of drilling expertise and patented technology, and that’s where C-FER can use its extensive resources to help Alberta operators and manufacturers reach worldwide markets with the best possible technologies at a time when the oilfield business is still struggling its way out of a two-year slump.

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