Canada’s clean secret

How green technology is revolutionizing the oil and gas supply chain. 

By Joanne Paulson. 

High-efficiency pulse jet engines burning away harmful emissions. Electricity separating impurities from water.

These aren’t wild ideas or futuristic prototypes — they are just two of the latest Prairie-made innovations transforming the way oil and gas producers in Western Canada are operating.

While jaw-dropping advancements in technology are nothing new to the resource development supply chain, the pace of adoption has accelerated at an unparalleled rate. Competitive pressures are exerting their full force on the industry, and any advantage extractors and processors can capture — to be more efficient, more productive, more agile, and, with increasing demand, more clean — is a necessary edge that can be the difference between riches and ruin.

Dan Wicklum, chief executive of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), a coalition of 10 global giants accounting for more than 90 per cent of the region’s annual production, believes there is no turning back, and that fortune will inevitably favour the bold.

“Innovation has been right in the DNA of energy companies, including oil sands companies, since their inception,” says Wicklum. “At one time, it was impossible to get bitumen out of the earth. Now, we’re moving on to the second generation of technology. With progress in communications, new ways of thinking, and new, web-enabled relationships, we can connect with — collide with — so many different organizations at an integrated level never before possible.”

This type of collaborative ecosystem is stirring particular excitement in the environmental space. Many of the world’s largest producers are now coming together with start-ups, research labs, and other small- to medium-sized partners both up- and down-stream to commercialize cutting-edge green technologies.

“When it comes to priorities like using less water, treating water, protecting the land, and creating fewer greenhouse gases, the best model is one where we work shoulder-to-shoulder,” adds Wicklum, whose organization has, to date, released into the public domain close to 950 distinct innovations that cost more than $1.3 billion to develop. “We can say clearly to the whole world what our needs are and create a spot where entrepreneurs can connect.”

Burning the air clean

Many of these emerging success stories are not flowing from far-off places or large-scale institutions. They are being crafted here, at home, in our own backyards.

With a presence in Medicine Hat, Calgary, and Regina, Atlantis Research Labs had no initial intention of venturing into the oil and gas market. Instead, the company incorporated in 2007 dedicated solely to the aerospace sector, unveiling a patented pulse jet propulsion system containing no moving parts.

Pulse jet engines themselves are nothing new. The V-1 cruise missile, also known as the buzz bomb or doodlebug, gained notoriety during the Second World War as the only production aircraft to use a pulse jet for power. Its design was remarkably simple: A tube rolled from a sheet of mild steel, airflow shutters, a fuel inlet valve, and an automotive-style sparkplug ignition. Even low-grade gasoline was capable of generating more than 660 pounds of thrust.

The problem, however, was the speed the buzz bomb had to be traveling at to sustain early flight. The most common method was catapulting the unit off an inclined track, using hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanganate — the same two combustibles propelling the German-made 163 Komet rocket plane — to accelerate the unit to close to 600 kilometres per hour. Atlantis, on the other hand, devised a system whereby the engine is ‘tricked’ into acting like it is moving at a high velocity, allowing ignition and acceleration to occur from standstill.

Then, in 2015, the plan for Atlantis changed altogether. An oil producer operating in the Bakken play approached President & CEO Vladimir Mravcak to discuss whether the pulse jet technology could be used to treat waste gas, notably methane, through incineration. Husky, Cenovus, and other behemoths followed suit with pilots of their own, and the PureJet was born.

The concept, details Mravcak, is not indifferent to that of buzz bombs: Use waste gas (generated by normal oil and gas activities, such as pipeline maintenance) as the fuel source, and burn at such an intense heat that it removes up to 95 per cent of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions in the process.

“The byproduct of using the PureJet is a fraction of the CO2e produced by traditional venting or flaring,” he says. “And, at the moment, we are exploring further ways to reduce and capture the last five per cent of CO2e.”

These advances have major theoretical implications on our environmental footprint. The Government of Canada recently committed to reducing methane emissions by 40 per cent, singling out oil and gas companies for improvement. Mravcak believes PureJet can be the answer.

“This technology — designed, made, and serviced in Alberta and Saskatchewan — has the potential to single-handedly solve the global methane challenge,” he beams. “As few as 2,000 PureJet units could achieve the methane reduction targets the entire world committed to at the Paris climate change summit.”

Unlike most flare stacks that dot the Prairie landscape, the PureJet is capable of handling virtually any pressure of gas (1 – 1,000-plus psi), volumes as little as 50 cubic metres, and more than 20 per cent sour gas. It also burns in a contained chamber, eliminating odour and smoke, and shielding the flame from outdoor elements that may otherwise cause inefficiencies as well as greater environmental harm.

Currently, the PureJet is manufactured in multiple sizes, ranging from three feet to three stories tall.

“The largest units are for refineries or offshore oil platforms, and some of the smaller units can easily fit in the box of a pick-up truck,” says Mravcak. “At single wells on some smaller leases, it’s not economical to have a flare. The PureJet, though, enables producers to use it in smaller spaces. We’re able to treat the thousands of small oil wells ‘burping’ methane.”

Atlantis’ workforce is divided up into thirds — equal parts manufacturing, administration, and research and development. Just this past fall, Saskatchewan’s Pasqua First Nation purchased a stake in the company, complementing its ownership of Regina-based fabricator Pro Metal Industries.

These new relationships have rekindled Atlantis’ passion for out-of-the-box thinking and the pursuit of the impossible. Its team is now working on adapting the PureJet system for a variety of new applications, from solid waste incineration and electricity generation to separating bitumen and water purification.

“It’s imperative to keep innovating,” exclaims Mravcak. “This is our opportunity to not only be a manufacturing champion, but a social leader as well.”

Separating the water from the ‘mud’

Sean Frisky was an engineering student at the University of Regina when he landed an internship with the Co-op Refinery Complex. His boss presented him with a daunting task: Develop and improve technology to remediate the soil around the facility, without the need for excavation.

“I came up with an idea, pitched it, and they liked what they heard,” recalls Frisky. “So, I took a semester off and built it. The rest is history.”

It was the first job for what would become Ground Effects Environmental Services (GEE) — of which Frisky founded and now serves as president and CEO. One original process and 19 years later, the company has evolved into an international trailblazer in water and soil treatment technologies, spanning projects into the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the United States, and across Canada.

“Some of our technologies are used in production to reduce waste up-front, and some are used at the end to clean up,” says Frisky. “The common theme, the differentiator for us in the world, is using electricity to separate things — oil from solids, water from contaminants, and so on.”

In oil drilling, there are typically two uses for GEE’s equipment. The first is to treat the flow-back water when fracking. The second is to clean up drilling mud — or the solution used in drilling — from the soil.

“When they frack, they push water, sand, and chemicals down,” he explains. “When the water comes back up — we’re talking millions of litres per well — it’s contaminated. We can treat that using one of our electrical processes so it can be reused for another process or re-fracking.”

Without this cleaning, the water cannot be recycled because its impurities can cause operational issues such as plugging. Regulatory controls are tightening, too, compelling companies to use less water and clean on-site wherever possible.

GEE’s technology removes contaminants to produce a sludge that is inert and can be land-farmed. If there is an accessible lagoon, the sludge can be deposited in it, where the solids then separate out naturally.

This process is made possible by active currents running through an electrolytic cell.

“All chemistry is based on electricity — things are held together by a charge,” says Frisky. “We’re able to disrupt that charge, and separate the contaminants and solids.”

The system can filter out nitrates, ammonia, phosphates, pharmaceuticals, and many other pollutants. Soon, he notes, municipalities will be required to remove pharmaceuticals, including birth control and penicillin, from their water supplies.

Similar to the PureJet, GEE’s electrical ‘plants’ come in several sizes and are manufactured to be mobile. One such plant measures 8’ x 20’ in a crash frame, so it can be used on onshore or offshore rigs. At 45,000 pounds, it is both compact and heavy, yet is moveable by flatbed truck.

Another parallel GEE shares with Atlantis is its recommitment to R&D for a global marketplace. This has meant solidifying partnerships to outsource certain business functions — experimenting with a distribution sales channel, for example — to allow GEE to hone in on its strengths.

“We are, first and foremost, a technology company, so we have decided to focus on that,” says Frisky. “We’re taking a leap and concentrating on what we do best: Tech development, manufacturing assembly, and quality control before it goes out the door.”

Inspiring clean growth

Back at COSIA, CEO Dan Wicklum is confident the shift toward environmental stewardship and clean technology will produce many more Mravcaks and Friskys over the next decade.

And, as an organization, COSIA is putting its money where its proverbial mouth is.

Two years ago, the organization helped found the $20 million Carbon XPRIZE — awarding big dollars to teams of innovators that demonstrate the best idea to convert carbon into a valuable product.

“We have 26 teams competing from seven countries,” says Wicklum. “Interestingly, the country that has the most teams in the final is Canada. We feel strongly that’s not just because it’s a Canadian prize, but because we are global leaders in this area.”

XPRIZE finalists will test their submissions at a new commercialization centre funded jointly by the Alberta and federal governments.

“We are creating a whole new sector Canada is poised to do exceptionally well in,” concludes Wicklum. “Carbon capture and utilization in the future will be a huge sector — billions of dollars. And it will have its roots, in large part, right here in Western Canada.”