Oct. 23, 2020

Killam Laureate gets more by going half-steam-ahead in Alberta's oilsands

Mohammadali Ahmadi explores ways of making oilsands extraction more efficient and less expensive.
Mohammadali Ahmadi
2020 Killam Laureate Mohammadali Ahmadi Riley Brandt

There are tough questions facing Alberta’s energy industry. What do you do when your product costs more to produce than you can sell it for? And how do you reassure investors concerned about the environmental impacts of your production methods?

The bitumen extracted from Alberta’s oilsands is expensive to produce and not always profitable when global oil prices are low; production often has a significant environmental footprint. The solution is obvious: lower production costs and reduce the environmental impact. It's less obvious how to achieve that.

Killam Laureate explores solutions to oilsands challenges

Mohammadali Ahmadi, a PhD student in chemical and petroleum engineering, is working toward solutions on both fronts. Ahmadi was named a 2020 Killam Laureate for his research on steam co-injection methods for bitumen recovery, which promises to lower production costs as well as the amounts of clean water and methane currently used in oilsands extraction.

As Ahmadi explains, oilsands bitumen is essentially a solid in the ground. Steam injection methods were developed in order to make the bitumen behave more a like a liquid so that it can be extracted.

“Essentially, the heat transfer from the steam liquefies the bitumen,” says Ahmadi. “The problem is that this method uses massive amounts of very clean water, and requires burning a lot of methane to heat the water. It’s a very expensive method that is not feasible given the current market.”

Innovating efficiencies in extraction

Working with supervisor Dr. John Chen, PhD and his Reservoir Simulation Group, Ahmadi is exploring the co-injection of surfactants as a way to reduce both the amount of steam required, and therefore the amount of methane needed to heat the water.

“Our goal is to reduce the amount of steam required for bitumen extraction by about 50 per cent,” says Ahmadi. “In other words, our goal is to develop a steam co-injection method that will use less water and less methane while increasing production. This will bring down the cost of bitumen extraction, making the product viable at lower market prices. It could also help Canada achieve its climate change goals by improving the environmental impact of oilsands production.”

To commercialize the use of surfactants, Ahmadi and the Reservoir Simulation Group start at the molecular scale and eventually work up to the full scale of an existing reservoir, working through a series of individual wells and pilot tests.

A global perspective

As an international student from Iran, Ahmadi draws on a broad perspective to see potential applications for his research in other unconventional oilfields around the world, including in China, Venezuela, Iran and California, although none of these other fields approach the scale of Alberta’s oilsands resources.

While his research may hold great value for the energy industry in Canada and abroad, Ahmadi’s first goal is to remain in academia. “I enjoy the dynamic environment of academia, and I enjoy doing research that seeks to find solutions to challenging problems.”

Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarships at the University of Calgary

Ahmadi also holds a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (2019), and is one of 22 doctoral students to be recognized as a 2020 Killam Laureate. “The Killam awards help set the University of Calgary apart as a great place to pursue graduate research,” says Dr. Robin Yates, vice-provost and dean, graduate studies.

“The recognition and support that come with being a Killam Laureate help to expand the reach and impact of our students’ work on the lives of Canadians. We are very proud of Mohammadali and all of our Killam students.”

The Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarship, valued at $33,000 CAD a year for two years, serves as a confirmation to Ahmadi that his work is important and valued. “I am humbled to receive this prestigious scholarship, as well as the Vanier scholarship,” he says. “In addition to the profound honour, the Killam scholarship will help me attend conferences and workshops, hopefully in the near future.”