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Researchers seek ‘holy grail’ of oil sands production via underground refineries

The University of Calgary has recruited two international heavy oil experts to chase some oil sands dreams, notably ways to refine raw bitumen underground.

Steve Larter of Britain and Pedro Pereira Almao of Venezuela will head up the research effort at the university’s newly opened Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In Situ Recovery.

University President Harvey Weingarten said new methods of developing the oil sands are vital because of the decline in conventional oil and gas reserves and increasing environmental constraints.

“Every 1 percent increase in the recovery rate of Alberta’s bitumen translates into C$26 billion in additional gross domestic product,” he said.

The challenge, said Almao, is to find alternatives to the use of water, natural gas and diluents in the extraction and processing of bitumen.

“Canada cannot sustain for … more than probably 20 years the use of natural gas and diluent to produce bitumen,” he said.

Larter, who has done research on heavy oil in the British North Sea, said that 10 years from now he hopes the oil industry is “very, very different ... using some technologies that we’ve contributed to.

“What we’re trying to do is essentially build the refinery in the reservoir … but we’re looking at a long-term program.”

Larter said oil and gas are not needed to heat homes or power cars — what is needed is energy.

“Maybe in the very long term we burn oil inside the reservoir and produce electricity directly for fuel cells,” he said.

Larter said early efforts to use chemicals to break down bitumen are already under way at a site operated by Devon Energy in northeastern Alberta.

A breakthrough there would be revolutionary, he said.

Through the facility, Devon has already gained experience in the use of steam-assisted gravity drainage technology to underpin plans for its C$500 million Jackfish project.

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