Radio frequency heating of heavy oil and bitumen

The lazy days of summer are coming to an end and fall is fast approaching. I hope you all enjoyed the summer and I’m glad to get back at my blog. Things are really heating up at Acceleware! In my last post, I promised to elaborate on why we are so excited about the prospect of heating heavy oil and bitumen reservoirs using radio frequency electrical energy (what we call RF heating). Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that unconventional oil production, most notably Alberta’s oil sands, face some perceived and some very real environmental challenges. The Globe and Mail reports that a barrel of Alberta’s oil sands crude emits 14 to 20 per cent more green house gasses (GHG) than other crudes measured on a well to wheel basis. However, it may be surprising for some people to learn that even the in-situ steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) production method of Alberta’s oil sands does not emit as much GHG as the heavy oil extracted in California.

Then there’s the water. CAPP estimates that Alberta oil sands production used 170 million m3 of fresh water in 2011, almost half of what the City of Toronto uses in one year. It should be noted that water consumption drops dramatically with the shift from mining type oil sands extraction (3.1 barrels of water per barrel of oil) to the increasingly more common SAGD extraction (0.4 barrels of water per barrel of oil), and as of 2013 it is estimated that in-situ production has surpassed mining production.

Without a doubt, unconventional oil production, whether it is Alberta oil sands or other heavy oil deposits, uses water and energy in the extraction process. It is in everyone’s best interests to reduce these footprints. This is where RF heating comes in. What if you could reduce or eliminate the use of water in in-situ extraction of bitumen or heavy oil? What if you could use a more efficient way of heating those reservoirs to raise the viscosity of the oil so that it can be produced? What if you could produce oil from reservoirs that have no other production method? RF heating has the potential to do all these things. Instead of using steam to heat the reservoir (which uses water and emits GHG) RF heating uses electrical energy to heat the reservoir. Early estimates suggest that RF heating could be substantially more efficient than steam, so even if the electricity is produced using fossil fuel, it will emit less GHG. Not to mention that the electrical energy for RF heating could be generated from renewable sources – solar, wind or hydro.

Acceleware is helping several companies determine if RF heating is viable in a number of different applications – from oil sands to heavy oil, in Alberta and around the world. We have developed unique skills and software to analyze the effectiveness of RF heating in these applications. In addition, we are developing unique antenna designs, as we believe each application requires an optimized design. Soon we will be participating in pilot tests which will further demonstrate the effectiveness of this technology. The technology is still in its infancy, but if RF heating works it could be the biggest innovation in unconventional oil production in decades. A quick web search will show that several organizations are interested and actively working on RF heating. To name a few, Companies such as Suncor, Nexen, PDVSA, CononcoPhillips, Laricina, and ENI are studying, and in some cases testing the technology. Acceleware can participate in the RF heating space in a number of ways. We already provide simulation, antenna design and production monitoring expertise to our customers. We have coupled our electromagnetic simulation software with the industry leading reservoir simulation software to provide an end-to-end simulation solution. RF heating simulation requires a perfect synergy of expertise in electromagnetics, subsurface geophysics and reservoir knowledge and high performance computing – precisely Acceleware’s strengths. In the future, we could also participate in system integration including antenna and power system manufacturing. I’ll keep you posted of our progress in this exciting development.