Chemical engineering professor Pedro Pereira-Almao and chemical engineer Luis Alejandro Coy are part of a University of Calgary team launching a pilot project in Mexico to test a revolutionary new nanocatalytic in-situ oil upgrading method that they say is 30 to 40 percent more efficient than conventional extraction methods.

Most Calgarians who travel south in winter are doing so to escape the city’s bone-chilling cold and blustery snowstorms. Not Pedro Pereira-Almao, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary. He and several U of C researchers plans to be in Mexico later in January to oversee the launch of a pilot project in the Aguacate oil field near the city of Poza Rica in the southeastern region of Veracruz.

Poza Rica means “rich oil”, which is just what Pereira-Almao is seeking to produce. The proprietary Nano Catalytic In-Situ Upgrading Method, developed by him and his team at U of C, should turn long-chain hydrocarbons into simpler, light hydrocarbons while they are still in the ground. In this way the oil becomes upgraded before it even leaves the reservoir, he explains, “absolutely ready for refining — ready for the market — and easily transportable.”

A former NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Catalysis for Bitumen Upgrading at U of C’s Schulich School of Engineering, Pereira-Almao expects to arrive in Mexico after the arrival of various pieces of hardware associated with Catalyst Manufacturing Unit, the machinery that will implement this catalytic approach at Aguacate. He describes this equipment as the first of its kind, engineered and built by the U of C spinoff company Process and Chemistry Consulting for Upgrading Solutions Ltd. (PC-CUPS) at a total cost of about $4.5 million. It was constructed by Calgary’s Braeside Fabricator, then trucked to Mexico last December for installation on the surface of an Aguacate well.

Pedro Pereira-Almao, Professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering

Pedro Pereira-Almao, Professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. Photo credit: PC-CUPS

Pilot testing was originally scheduled to begin earlier, but those plans were waylaid by two devastating earthquakes that wracked Mexico last fall. Pereira-Almao says most of the work should be done by the end of the summer and there will be a vast store of data to showcase the value this technology could have for Alberta oil companies, which have expressed interest in the Nano Catalytic In-Situ Upgrading Method but so far deigned to try out the technology in their own oil fields. At the same time Innovate Calgary, U of C’s intellectual property arm, will take the first steps to commercialize this process.

The upgrading method has called for about $35 million worth of work over the last decade by Pereira-Almao’s Catalysts and Adsorbents for Fuels and Energy (CAFE) group, which cultivates collaborations with oil companies to nurture new technologies and scale up to the construction of larger demonstration facilities. CAFE encompasses five laboratories within the university’s Calgary Centre of Innovation Technology, which house nine mini-oil refineries used for testing catalysts and nanocatalysts on heavy crude oils from fossil fuels as well as biomass sources.

Why should oil companies in Alberta or elsewhere be interested in nanocatalytic in-situ upgrading? Pereira-Almao replies that it saves money, along with increasing revenues, improving production, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by dramatically reducing the use of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). As one of the more common forms of oil extraction in Alberta, SAGD is needed to heat deeply buried bitumen, known as extra-heavy oil, to a temperature where it can flow into a producing well.

According to the Alberta government’s 2017 statistics, some 40 percent of the province’s bitumen production — about 970,000 barrels per day — are produced in this way, which requires about 2.6 barrels of steam to yield one barrel of bitumen. Pereira-Almao’s data, the result of more than a decade’s worth of research, indicate that in-situ upgrading with nanocatalysts could reduce the need for steam by as much as 30 to 40 percent.

“I am using a fraction of the steam — 1.4 barrels of steam – because I need to use much less energy and thus produce less CO2,” he says. “The economies are extremely favourable, whereas SAGD costs about $60 a barrel, our cost is $42 a barrel.”

Those numbers, while impressive, have not yet managed get Alberta oil companies to jump on the nanocatalyst bandwagon.

ee dimensional imagery of a catalyst manufacturing unit that is being used in a pilot project in the Aguacate oil field near the Mexican city of Poza Rica.

Three dimensional imagery of a catalyst manufacturing unit that is being used in a pilot project in the Aguacate oil field near the Mexican city of Poza Rica. Photo credit: PC-CUPS

“Sometimes people say that it is too good to be true,” says Luis Alejandro Coy, a chemical engineer who has been part of CAFE since 2010 when he arrived in Canada from his native Colombia. “Sometimes they don’t believe in the numbers.” He adds that the collapse in crude prices — from more than US$100 a barrel in 2014 to about half as much now — has dampened cash-strapped Alberta oil companies’ interest in new technology.

Coy has been pivotal to the implementation of the field-testing that is about to be launched in Mexico. As the PC-CUPS technology development engineer he undertook initial groundwork to implement the pilot project in Mexico last summer. Both Coy and Pereira-Almao emphasize the crucial support given them for that undertaking by Instituto Mexicano del Petróleo, the country’s national petroleum research and development institution. Pereira-Almao insists that such international partnerships are integral to the development of new technologies within the petroleum sector, especially when prices for crude hover near or even below production costs.

Coy observes that Mexico’s interest in the new technology — which accounts for much of the $35 million invested so far — stems from a decline in the country’s oil supply, which has prompted a search for alternative ways to exploit the most abundant heavy oil reserves with the greatest efficiency possible.

The Mexican nanocatalyst pilot project launch has been years in the making. Pereira-Almao says his eureka moment came more than a decade ago when he realized there was a more efficient way to carry out the catalytic conversion of hydrocarbons.

“Instead of bringing the molecules to the catalyst,” he says, “we bring the catalysts to the molecules to help make the chemistry happen.”

Pereira-Almao makes the miniature catalysts in his lab, taking a solution of salts containing nickel and molybdenum, then elevating the temperature until decomposition starts, creating particles 100 nanometres or less in size without need for expensive surfactants. During his early experiments, Pereira-Almao and fellow researchers found that the nanocatalysts dispersed in water and would not penetrate the oil he wanted to upgrade. Success was achieved after they combined the nanocatalysts in an oil residue like diesel, an innovation that was eventually patented by Pereira-Almao and his colleagues Carlos Scott, Brij Maini and John Chen.

The in-situ upgrading method uses a small zone in the oil reservoir for the nanocatalysts to be injected. First, hydrogen is created from water via electrolysis or more conventional methods such as methane steam reforming. This hydrogen is injected into the suspension nanocatalysts along with vacuum residue — the heaviest product obtained from the vacuum distillation of crude oil — at 300-350. This mixture creates lighter fractions by reacting exothermically, which is why the process requires only about half as much steam as conventional SAGD.

Once injected into a well, the nanocatalysts bind to the hydrocarbons and the vacuum residue converts into distillates, which help the bitumen become mobile and rise for recovery.  Since the vacuum residue is redirected back to the upgrading zone in the reservoir, the oil has itself produced no residue.

“The nastiest components of the bitumen go back into the reservoir with the vacuum residue, including metals and a good portion of the sulphur,” says Pereira-Almao, noting that the decreased use of steam also decreases the resulting CO2 emissions. “Therefore the need for dilution or upgrading at the surface is 100 percent eliminated.”

Coy is “super confident” that, due to extensive testing over many years at U of C, the process will pass with flying colours in Mexico. He is also optimistic that it will work just as efficiently in Alberta, despite the difference in hydrocarbon mobility. Mexico’s oil is liquid because the reservoirs are about 90C, much warmer than Alberta’s cold — and thus solid — reservoirs.

The nanocatalyst technology, adds Coy, will also be effective for use heavy-oil reservoirs at depths of 400 metres or more. In such cases big compressors and high temperatures are typically needed to create the steam, which can be uneconomical. However, the Nano Catalytic In-Situ Upgrading Method always avoids the complications posed by the high pressures found in deep wells.

“So the advantage of the technology is that we present an alternative to steam injection,” explains Coy. In fact, he regards it as more than simply an alternative to SAGD — it also represents an opportunity to show the oil-producing world that Canada can be a leader in technological innovation.

“We can have a big impact all over the world, not just in Canada, as there are many areas where this can be applied,” he concludes, pointing to how depressed oil prices raise questions about how competitive the Alberta oil sands are on the global energy stage. “The industry has been hurting for three years. We must look for ways to produce cheaper oil here in Canada.”