Oct. 17, 2014

Appointment launches new era in energy research at University of Calgary

Schulich School of Engineering’s Steven Bryant to lead campus team of researchers exploring nanoscience solutions

The greatest energy challenge of the 21st century is to meet energy demand from available fuels while drastically reducing society’s environmental footprint.

The challenge is massive. The solution, according to Steven Bryant, may be miniscule.

Bryant will lead and co-ordinate nanotechnology and materials science research at the University of Calgary, and the integrated team of researchers from across campus who will aim to drastically change how the oilsands are developed.

The world-leading researcher comes to the University of Calgary as the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs. He is the university’s first CERC and came here after the university was granted a so-called “hunting licence” to scour the globe for an energy researcher who would complete an already robust team of heavy oil and oilsands researchers.

Bryant says Alberta’s oilsands are a key resource for meeting the world’s energy demands and the status quo is not acceptable.

“There is a huge desire to extract this energy resource with less environmental impact and, we think, conceivably even zero-impact, because of some of the cool things that are becoming possible with nanotechnology,” says Bryant.

“That’s kind of blue-sky but that’s one of the things we will be trying to sow the seeds for — alternative ways to get the energy out of this resource altogether. It’s a chance to do things better than we are currently doing them because of rapid advances in mesoscience.”

Bryant in the lab.

Bryant in the lab.

The science of very small things

Mesoscience — technology developed at smaller than 100 nanometres — offers many tantalizing options to increase the efficiency of in-situ oilsands development, or Steam-Assisted Gravity drainage (SAGD). SAGD is the extraction process in which producers drill horizontal wells beneath the surface to pump steam into the underground oilsands reservoirs to loosen the oil and pump it to the surface.

SAGD is the method currently used to pump nearly one million barrels per day in Alberta and the output is forecast to double by 2022. SAGD uses considerable volumes of water and requires energy to heat the water to produce the steam that softens the underground oil that is caked in sand.

By using nanotechnology, Bryant and his team are working on reducing the amount of energy needed to heat water to create steam while also making the underground heat source more efficient at gathering more oil.

"The holy grail for the last 30 years has been trying to get CO2 to be less viscous. If you can do that, then you can get it to contact a lot more of the oil and for the same amount of CO2, you get a lot more oil produced. That turned out to be hard to do because there aren’t many chemical ways to make CO2 more viscous,” says Bryant.

By employing innovative approaches now, industry, environment and consumers can benefit greatly in the not-too-distant future.

“These alternative ways to get the energy out are at least 10 years away. So it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s worth thinking about now to try to see what might be possible,” says Bryant.

The audience at a campus reception on Thursday applauds as Steven Bryant is announced as the University of Calgary's first Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs.

Steven Bryant is announced as the University of Calgary's first Canada Excellence Research Chair.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

A move to Canada’s energy epicenter

Bryant is looking forward to working in Canada’s energy hub and says he will also work with industry to tackle oil production issues.

Industry wants to be more efficient at extracting oil because it saves them money. Efficiency also means reducing the environmental footprint. He believes oil companies will welcome the research produced from the university and said Calgary is the ideal place to be world leaders in energy production and energy research.

“The university is close to where the action is. All the major operators are in town and there’s a chance to take things from the lab to the field. The University of Calgary is very well situated in that regard.”

Bryant is joining the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering. Before accepting this position, he was at the University of Texas at Austin, as Bank of America Centennial Professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, and directed the Geological CO2 Storage Joint Industry Project and the Nanoparticles for Subsurface Engineering Industrial Affiliates Program.

Bryant pioneered the fields of digital petrophysics and nanoparticles for engineering applications, and has made some of the most significant advances in the past 20 years in porous media modeling, reactive transport theory and CO2 sequestration. Bryant has been published more than 280 times in books, book chapters, peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings on applications in production engineering, reservoir engineering and formation evaluation. Over his career, Bryant has led major research initiatives involving industry partnerships and trained over 90 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who found positions in several of the largest energy companies and national laboratories.

He looks forward to what happens next.

“There’s still a lot of cool, basic science to be done, but we’ll be doing it with an eye to making a difference in terms of how you get energy out of the oilsands. This won’t be business as usual.”