September 2014

Featured Article

The Role of ECE in the Alberta Oil and Gas Industry

By Bruce F. Cockburn, Professor, and John Salmon, Professor & Chair, University of Alberta

The discovery in 1947 of a large oil field at Leduc, just south of Edmonton, marked the start of a profound transformation in the province of Alberta.  Until then Alberta’s economy was dominated by agriculture along with a developing mining and forest products industry.  Electrical engineering practice concerned itself with providing the electrical power generation and distribution system as well as the communications infrastructure required by the primarily agrarian economy and the needs of the urban centers.  The two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, had populations of roughly 119,000 and 100,000 in 1947 [1].  Two-thirds of the province’s population of about 800,000 lived in rural areas or in small towns.  By the end of 2013, Alberta’s population grew past 4 million, with the Edmonton and Calgary regions accounting for over 1.2 and 1.4 million, respectively.  The vast majority of this population growth can be attributed to the growth of the oil and gas (O&G) industry.  In 2012, the value of Alberta exports was CAD $95.5 billion, accounting for 22% of all Canadian exports.  Of the Alberta total, crude petroleum accounted for 57.9 billion (60.6%), natural gas and gas liquids for 7.9 billion (8.3%), and petrochemicals for 6.6 billion (6.9%) [2].

What role has been played by electrical and computer engineering (ECE) generally, and ECE research and development (R&D) specifically, in the growth of Alberta’s O&G industry?  In 1913 a Department of Electrical Engineering (EE) was established at the University of Alberta (UofA) in Edmonton to provide local training focussed initially on power systems [3].  Since then ECE graduates have indeed played an essential role in providing key infrastructure to support the expansion of the O&G sector and the province’s rapid economic growth.

The O&G industry in Alberta involves all phases of exploration, production, transportation and processing. Conventional O&G methods are being displaced by unconventional methods that significantly increase the amount of recoverable resource. In particular, unconventional methods developed over decades of R&D in Alberta have allowed the vast oil reserves of the oil sands to become economically recoverable at current oil prices. Containing an estimated 169 billion barrels of recoverable oil [4], the Alberta oil sands represent the third largest reserve of recoverable oil after the conventional oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and the Orinoco Belt of Venezuela.

Conventional O&G exploration remains a risky and capital-intensive business, even as the industry has been revolutionized by the introduction of computer-intensive geophysical data analysis.  Exploration involves the mapping of deeply buried geological structures using data collected by a variety of sensors such as magnetometers, gravimeters and acoustic sensors called geophones.  The latter uses acoustic pulses generated on the surface, and the resultant signals are collected from distributed arrays of geophones, and  then processed by computers to produce 3-D maps of the underground stratigraphy. 

Computers are also used to record the surface geography and the accurate location of infrastructure determined with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.  Geomatics Engineering is the new discipline that is concerned with the storage and processing of detailed spatially-referenced information.  The needs of O&G have spawned a local geomatics industry, based largely in Calgary (e.g., Vista Geomatics Ltd., Altus Geomatics). This development is supported by a new Department of Geomatics Engineering at the University of Calgary (UofC).  Much of the focus of geomatics research (e.g., digital imaging systems, GPS position location) was enabled by ECE R&D.

Conventional O&G production requires ECE technology to support wellhead data logging and communications over large areas, the control of distributed infrastructure, and the control of production processes. The communication requirements of O&G have ensured that the sparsely populated northern regions of the province have surprisingly extensive cellular telephone coverage.  Spurred on primarily by the needs of O&G, Alberta is a major market for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.  SCADA systems apply data acquisition methods, communications, signal processing and automatic control methods and developed within ECE.  Many successful SCADA start-up companies have emerged in Alberta, and their technology has been exported around the world.  For example, Harding Instruments Co. Ltd. was founded in 1969 by four professors from the Department of EE at the UofA. The company offers design and manufacturing services in communications, flow measurement, heavy equipment control, and process monitoring devices and systems. Independently of the UofA, Matrikon Inc. was founded in Edmonton in 1988 and rapidly built up a strong international reputation in process monitoring and control software. In 2010 Matrikon was acquired by Honeywell International Inc., and the business carries on as a component of Honeywell’s Advanced Solutions division. 

Raw or “wet” natural gas is typically expelled from a producing well without the need for pumping.  However, raw gas invariably contains impurities and natural gas liquids that must be removed before the gas can be transported through pipelines.  Typical impurities include carbon dioxide, water vapour, mercaptans, ethane, propane, butane and hydrogen sulfide.  Computer-controlled gas plants (e.g., Keyera Corp.’s plant at Rimbey) ensure the efficient and safe extraction of the impurities and the production of purified “dry” natural gas together with profitable by-products.

Directional drilling is widely used to enhance O&G recovery rates. The technology requires sensors near the drill bit that measure the inclination of the recently drilled section with respect to vertical and to magnetic north; also required is a communication system for bringing the sensor readings up to the surface where computers reconstruct the 3-D trajectory of the wellbore.  Additional properties of the surrounding rock (e.g., conductivity, radioactivity, pressure) may be measured. Mud-pulse telemetry is used as the communication system.  Mud refers to the drilling lubricant, typically a mixture of water and/or oil, clay and chemicals, that is injected at high pressure into the wellbore during drilling.  Transducers at the surface send digital commands encoded as mud pressure variations down to the underground sensors and a steerable drill bit; transducers at the underground sensors return raw readings up to the surface.

Alberta’s future as a major oil producer depends on the successful application of unconventional oil recovery methods to its large reserves of both heavy oil and oil sands. In 1921 the province established the Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta, later renamed the Alberta Research Council (ARC).  From the 1920s until the late 1940s, Dr. Karl A. Clark at both the ARC and the UofA invented and developed the hot water process that continues to be the basis for recovering bitumen in commercial oil sands operations [5].  The hot water process was scaled up and improved in the 1950s and 1960s by private companies (notably, Great Canadian Oil Sands and Syncrude) operating in collaboration with provincially and federally funded laboratories, and the province’s universities.  The open pit mines of the first commercial oil sands operations from the 1960s and 70s are now competing with new operations that access deeper deposits using underground in-situ steam injection with almost entirely recycled water.

Heavy oil and oil sands recovery methods are energy-intensive (e.g., open pit mining equipment, oar crushers and conveyor belts, steam production), and the recovered heavy oil or bitumen requires further upgrading to permit transport by pipeline and refining into a synthetic oil.  Maximizing energy efficiency at every step of production as well as minimizing environmental impact are critical factors to commercial success in competition with conventional oil. For example, advanced cogeneration technology (the simultaneous generation of electric power and heat) is widely used to increase efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas production.  Alternative heating methods involving ohmic heating using power frequency currents [6] as well as microwave radiation [7] have been investigated at Alberta universities and in government laboratories.  McMillan-McGee Corp. (Calgary), co-founded in 1995 by UofA ECE graduate Dr. Bruce McGee, is involved in a pilot study on the use of electric heating for oil sands recovery. The company has successfully commercialized related power frequency heating technology for application in environmental remediation [6].

As of 2011, oil production from the Alberta oil sands alone exceeded 1.2 million barrels per day [4].  The value of major O&G projects under construction or nearing completion in the summer of 2014 currently exceeds CAD $63 billion [8].  Recently announced and proposed O&G projects have values of $3.7 and $51.6 billion, respectively. The O&G industry continues to be a major employer of ECE graduates along with the commercial electric power and transmission utilities.  Over 10,200 of the roughly 74,000 members of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) identify themselves as ECE members. ECE R&D from Alberta and elsewhere continues to support the rapid expansion of the O&G industry, providing a major economic engine that benefits all of Canada.  Excellent opportunities exist for ECE R&D in such areas as high-efficiency power electronics and drives; improved power generation and cogeneration technology; the accurate modeling and efficient control of complex distributed processes; and the development of new sensors and environmental monitoring technologies.



 [1] “Municipal Census and Population Lists”, Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Government of Alberta, http://www.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/mc_official_populations.cfm

[2] “Alberta’s International Exports by Industry – A 10-Year Review”, Energy Resources Conservation Board, Government of Alberta, May 3, 2013.

[3] R. D. Findlay, “Part Two: Electrical Engineering and Technology Education”, pp. 122-163 in W. H. Prevey (ed.), Electricity, the Magic Medium, IEEE Canadian Region, Thornhill, ON, 1985.

[4] “Oil Sands: A Strategic Resource for Canada, North America and Global Market,” Public Works and Government Services Canada, Government of Canada, Feb. 2013.

[5] “Dr. Karl A. Clark,” Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame, http://www.canadianpetroleumhalloffame.ca/karl-clark.html

[6] F. Vermeulen and B. McGee, “In Situ Electromagnetic Heating for Hydrocarbon Recovery and Environmental Remediation,” J. of Canadian Petroleum Technology, Aug. 2000, vol. 39, no. 8, pp. 25-29.

[7] S. Mutyala et al., “Microwave Applications to Oil Sands and Petroleum: A Review,” Fuel Processing Technology, 2010, vol. 91, pp. 127-135.

[8] “Inventory of Major Projects,” Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education, Government of Alberta, http://www.albertacanada.com/business/statistics/inventory-of-major-projects.aspx


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