The scaled physical model rig for SAGD is the “workhorse” in Brij Maini’s laboratory at the Schulich School of Engineering — a workhorse to test solvents and additives under various conditions and proportions with the singular aim of extracting bitumen in a more efficient, economic and environmentally-friendly manner.

“We are looking at several options,” he told the Bulletin. “Primary research is going to be on looking at more efficient ways of adding hydrocarbon solvents to steam, because solvent additives look very promising. We are also looking at additives like surfactants and non-condensable gases, and their combinations.”

Brij Maini. Photo credit: Carter Haydu.

The modelling tool consists of a stainless steel box connected to 256 thermal couplers to measure temperature profiles. Researchers pack this high-tech box with clean silica sand, saturate the sand with water and then displace the water with bitumen until the contents of the pressurized container take on the characteristics of an oilsands reservoir.

Placed inside a large pressure vessel, the ‘rig,’ the outside of the model is pressurized to 500 psi so pressure on the outside and inside of the model is consistent. The model allows scientists to observe in a 24-hour period what would occur over 10 years in the field. Maini noted that each experiment is a rather timely endeavour.

“It takes about one month to run one experiment,” he said. “The preparation time is quite large, because when we start injecting bitumen into the model to displace the water, we can’t do it at very high temperatures. We try to do it at only 50 C, and so that takes about one week of work.”

He added: “Analysis of the sample takes a couple of weeks to three weeks to complete. With the preparation, analysis and all that, we typically get a turnaround time of about six weeks for this model.”

Fortunately, new industry support will enable the University of Calgary to increase its fleet of steel boxes from one to two or possibly three, which means as one experiment is running in the rig, researchers can already be preparing the next one, which cuts by half the turnaround time. Maini said: “That is really a target for this chair program.”

The petroleum engineer is the newest Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)/Nexen Energy ULC and CNOOC Ltd. Industrial Research Chair in Advanced In-situ Recovery Processes for Oilsands, with a mandate to study additives to reduce the financial and environmental costs of steam injection for heavy oil recovery (DOB, May 15, 2017).

The author of more than 100 peer-reviewed articles and numerous conference papers, Maini’s work over the past four decades has helped push the science of heavy-oil recovery from educated guesswork to a solid understanding of reservoirs and SAGD. Maini joined the university in 1999 after 20 years working in heavy oil recovery at the not-for-profit Petroleum Recovery Institute.

His university team is currently examining mechanisms at work when adding solvents, surfactants and gases with steam to reduce the high viscosity of heavy oil and minimizing heat losses to the reservoir, hopefully leading to optimized recovery processes with much less environmental impact than current technologies.

“The biggest challenge right now has been bringing down the cost of production, because we have to compete with cheaper oil,” he told the DOB. “That requires cutting down the cost of production at every step. The biggest cost factor in oil production with SAGD is steam, because the amount of steam you use per barrel of oil is what determines whether you can make money selling on it.”

According to Maini, the scaled physical model rig for SAGD is not the only equipment in his lab to benefit from the industrial research chair, nor is equipment funding the only component to benefit from this partnership. For example, currently the professor has eight graduate students working for him, which should now grow to 12.

“The university benefits from the chair program to a great extent. It brings in funding for research, it supports quite a few graduate students, and in a way it relieves the university from my salary component, because for the next five years my salary will also be coming out of the chair funding program. The university is committed to hiring another faculty position as part of the chair program, and so faculty strength will go up by one because of the chair program.”

Industrial research chairs are a key to the university’s Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow research strategy and its goal of developing safer, more secure energy. Maini added: “Right now we have several industrial research chairs in our department. I’m not the only one. All these chair programs are working on very similar types of research that will all benefit the oil and gas industry of Canada.”