Dropping world oil prices as well as environmental concerns continue to plague producers seeking viable ways to efficiently extract oil from Canadian and U.S. oilsands deposits. The combined pressures threaten the industry unless solutions are found to enhance the extraction process and, at the same time, significantly reduce the industry’s environmental impact. Exploring the introduction of nanotechnology is, arguably, a potential solution, but will newer techniques produce results to satisfy all stakeholders?
The oil industry has, for many years, been well aware of the oilsands and the potential yields they hold. However, the current techniques available to harvest the oil are economically challenging. Without high oil prices, the extraction is simply too expensive to yield the profits demanded by investors. In addition, environmental concerns also present significant obstacles.
Why Are Environmentalists Concerned?
Extraction processes currently practiced require a great deal of water, which is viewed as a threat to the water supplies of regions surrounding production sites. The processes also require the use of petroleum products—typically one barrel of petroleum for every five recovered—that further reduces net profits and increases the carbon footprint of production.
The current techniques are also expected to dramatically increase CO2 levels. That single element places the industry in the crosshairs of governments committed to treaties promising to reduce CO2 production in coming years. Given those concerns, are there potential solutions in sight?
How The Industry Is Responding to Economic and Environmental Concerns
Controversy has dogged the oil industry since its inception. Today, with public and governmental concerns in the forefront, industry leaders are constantly looking for innovations to pacify the demands for conservation of resources as well as investors’ profit requirements. The introduction of nanotechnology is, at this point, one of the more promising developments for oilsands production.
“We are on the cusp of something really big in oil and gas. The potential exists to dramatically improve existing technologies, and also develop new ways of extracting energy to drastically reduce our carbon footprint,” said researcher Steven Bryant in a recent Canada Excellence Research Chairs article.
What Solutions Will Nanotechnology Bring To The Table?
The adoption of nanotechnology is predicted to significantly reduce the amount of water in the extraction process. That element alone may reduce the likelihood of additional regulatory intervention. But, another issue must also be addressed.
Current processes fail to harvest a significant portion of the available oil because the technology removes oil from larger pores, but not smaller ones. That means a large percentage of available fuels are left behind.
Nanotechnology, in Bryant’s words, seeks to mitigate both issues in an entirely new way. The strategy hopes to “viscosify” the steam, effectively transforming it into a type of foam that will more evenly enter both large and small pores of the reservoir. That, in theory, will allow producers to release more of the available oil, increasing yields while using far less water and fuel to produce steam.
Does That Guarantee Oilsands Production Will Be Profitable?
Long-term viability of any production source depends on a variety of conditions, suggesting the improved effectiveness of the technology used is no absolute guarantee of future profitability. In fact, at this point, there is no guarantee the proposed strategies will even work.
Steven Bryant, in a June CBC News interview, is quoted saying, “Failure should not be penalized.” Bryant goes on to state industries learn by failing and that innovation should not be stymied. In other words, even if current nanotechnology experiments do not yield the expected results, they will provide a foundation for additional experimentation.
As oil supplies continue to be threatened by rapidly evolving events around the world, the need to utilize more localized sources may well become increasingly important. The oilsands in North America are a valuable resource the region cannot afford to ignore. Not only can the deposits provide profits, but using nanotechnology may well provide the answer for minimizing the environmental consequences of production.
Information sourced from Canada Excellence Research Chairs and CBC News