How a software company is microwaving Alberta’s oilsands

As oilsands companies work to meet their climate targets and face an incoming limit on total emissions from the federal government, there has never been as much focus on how the industry in northern Alberta can cut its vast air pollution. The result is a wave of technological innovation, including ideas first conceived many decades ago — like microwaving the oil out of the ground.

That’s essentially the technology developed by Calgary-based software company Acceleware, which began producing oil at its demonstration facility in the province last month near Lloydminster.

Underground, the company uses radio waves to heat up oil, which is then pumped to the surface. The technology remains in development and still faces challenges, but its backers say it has the potential to cut carbon emissions in the sector.

“Since the 40s, people have thought of the idea of using radio frequency energy to produce oil,” said Acceleware’s CEO Geoff Clark.

In the past, even in recent decades, researchers were using radio or TV station equipment, which Clark said doesn’t work well as a heat source.

“In our opinion, the frequency ranges are all wrong, the efficiency is all wrong and the capital cost of that communications equipment is way too high,” he said.

Acceleware injects radiofrequency underground using two heating lines. After the oil is warmed up, it flows down into the producer well and is pumped up to the surface. (CBC News Graphics)

When oilsands companies drill oil wells, they typically heat up the bitumen using steam, which is produced using natural gas. If radio wave technology is successful, companies could reduce their emissions and water use. There could be operational and capital cost savings too, Clark said.

“Using electrification to decarbonize the production of heavy oil is really what we’re trying to do,” he said. “The big challenge for us is to demonstrate that we’re doing what we say the technology can do.”

Oil is pumped to the surface at this wellhead as part of Acceleware’s test project. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The Acceleware demonstration facility began operating in March and began producing oil in April, although the company wouldn’t say how much. The company is gradually increasing the amount of electricity to test how much heat and oil can be produced.

The plan is to operate the project for six to 12 months, to gather enough data. Acceleware doesn’t want to be an oil company itself, but instead sell and service the equipment to oilpatch producers.

The technology could be ready for use in industry as soon as next year, the company said, if the demonstration is successful.

WATCH | How Acceleware got the idea to use radio waves in the oilpatch:

For than 10 years, Acceleware has worked to develop technology to microwave the oilsands

The idea came from a project in California, says Geoff Clark, the company’s CEO. 1:54

‘It’s early days’

Acceleware, which was founded in 2004 as a software company, has received more than $15 million…

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