While it was not specifically created to deal with oil and gas industry challenges, a new facility in Richmond, B.C., to test carbon capture and conversion technologies will focus much of its efforts on problems specific to the high emitting oilsands—specifically making production less carbon intensive.

The federal government last week announced a $950,000 investment in the new BC Research Inc. (BCRI) Technology Commercialization and Innovation Centre, which is home to the Carbon Capture and Conversion Institute (CCCI). Funding will go to state-of-the-art equipment for the CCCI to help develop and scale up capture and conversion technologies as developers move them closer to market.

The CCCI will work closely with the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) in Calgary and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) to commercialize promising technologies, CCCI executive director Goran Vlajnic said in an interview.

The CCCI can accommodate a range of technologies from solvent systems, membranes and sorbents on the capture side, to chemical, electrochemical and biological systems in the conversion stream. It also has expertise in pre-combustion capture and the decarbonization of fossil fuels.

Vlajnic, who was employed for 25 years in the oil industry, stresses the CCCI is not a research facility—its focus is on advancing technologies that will have real-world commercial application. “We are very pragmatic. We will be looking for specific solutions to specific needs. And we are not working in a vacuum—we seek not to duplicate but to complement [other organizations]. Our work will benefit and generate jobs in both provinces.”

The CCCI aims to fill the gap between concepts developed by researchers such as at university research labs that are at the early-stage, bench scale and those tested at the pre-commercial level at ACCTC’s Shepard Energy Centre. Owned and operated by InnoTech Alberta, a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, the Shepard Energy Centre is initially being used by finalists of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE — a global competition offering $20 million in prize funding to innovators who can develop technologies to maximize the value of CO2.

The CCCI’s early-stage research team is located at the University of B.C. and its affiliated Clean Energy Research Centre, where new technologies are tested at a scale of a few kilograms of CO2 capture per day. The CCCI itself will test technologies at a scale of one to two tonnes of CO2 per day, while the Shepard Energy Centre is designed to test technologies at up to 25 tonnes per day. Technologies that pass muster at the Shepard Energy Centre will then be piloted in the field, likely by member companies of COSIA, Vlajnic said.

“We can test different technologies at a rapid scale, evaluate them, stretch them to the breaking point, kill them if they are not good, and then feed those ones that make sense to the [Shepard] facility in Alberta to verify them under real industrial conditions,” Vlajnic explained. “That process is less expensive than if the same thing is done at the Shepard facility, which is much bigger and way less flexible, and where it is more costly to do this kind of work.”

The CCCI also co-ordinates with the Calgary-based Containment and Monitoring Institute (CaMI)—which focuses on technological development to ensure the secure underground storage of CO2 in shallow reservoirs. CaMI operates a Field Research Station near Brooks, Alberta, to study monitoring technologies for containment and conformance of fluids injected into the subsurface. Both CCCI and CaMI are operated by Calgary-headquartered CMC Research Institutes.

Value proposition

Two immediate areas of focus at CCCI are capturing CO2 from flue gas produced by once through steam generators—which are used extensively by SAGD bitumen producers to produce steam from natural gas combustion—and technologies to capture and use methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has come under increasing scrutiny as jurisdictions across North America move to contain its release.

The CCCI brings a few other value propositions to the table, Vlajnic said. “We can be very objective in third-party techno-economic assessments. There are a number of different technologies that people are presenting as a silver bullet. We can actually test and verify their claims, compare these technologies, and go back to industry and say, ‘for your application this is the best technology.’

“I know a number of people lost their jobs due to the downturn,” he added. “The oil and gas industry is now very lean and for them not to focus on their core competency is going to be very costly. So our institute can be very helpful to scale up and de-risk and validate these technologies and then bring them back to the industry.”

Vlajnic said he knows from working in the industry that oil companies are often approached by technology developers with “a black box is going to solve their problems,” without understanding that technology integration is very complex in the oil and gas industry, where implementation of any one technology can disrupt the entire process.

“What they don’t understand is, that black box is just a building block in a big wall. If you remove one building block and then replace it with another one, the wall is not the same anymore. It’s not really efficient anymore—it’s not well integrated. Our institute will provide industrial solutions rather than just the technology gadgets. We can integrate different technologies into industrial solutions that are going to be tailored very specifically to the needs of industry.”

The CCCI will look at combining unrelated technologies to create new solutions as well as technologies from other nonrelated industries in the quest for new carbon reducing technologies. In addition to oil and gas, it seeks solutions for other high emitting sectors, such as the power generation and cement industries, Vlajnic said.

While major breakthroughs are possible, Vlajnic cautions that new technologies won’t be available in the short term. It could be four or five years or more before concepts presented today go through the stages he outlines and become commercially successful, he said.