The announcement of Steven Bryant as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs promises to enhance the University of Calgary’s reputation as a world leader in energy research, and at the same time allow Canada to consolidate its reputation as an environmental leader.
Bryant has arrived in Canada from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was Bank of America Centennial Professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, as well as founder and director of two of the university’s industrial affiliates programs. He has a reputation as one of the world’s most innovative and insightful energy researchers, and says his move to Canada will provide him with an opportunity to focus on one of the most interesting developments in petroleum engineering in decades: the use of nanoparticles.
“Nanomaterials and emerging capabilities in mesoscale science [i.e., concerning materials between about 10 nanometers and a few micrometers, a region where neither quantum theory nor classical laws are suitable] offer some extraordinary opportunities in many different areas,” he adds. “The past decade has seen incredible progress in this field—mainly through biomedicine—based on three essential characteristics: the small size of nanomaterials, the fact you can tailor their surface coatings, and their functional particle cores.”
The potential exists to dramatically improve existing technologies, and also to develop new ways of extracting energy to drastically reduce our carbon footprint.
These same characteristics hold great potential for oil sand applications. Particles less than ~100 nanometers (nm) in size are much smaller than reservoir pores and can be delivered into oil sand reservoirs. Their surfaces can be coated with chemicals, which enable the particles to attach preferentially to interfaces between aqueous and non-aqueous phases (e.g., oil and water) and are ubiquitous in oil reservoirs.
“We are on the cusp of something really big in oil and gas,” Bryant says. “The potential exists to dramatically improve existing technologies, and also to develop new ways of extracting energy to drastically reduce our carbon footprint. The opportunities for doing these things in the oil sands are particularly exciting because so many issues—technical, economic, social—of national and global importance collide in one place. The University of Calgary is the place to do that. For me, there is no doubt: it is the best place in the world for in situ oil sands research.”
Bryant believes the new chair will enable him and his collaborators at the University of Calgary to “concentrate for an extended period of time on solving big problems,” something that is becoming a challenge in most universities, where researchers are forced to spend valuable time trying to secure funding. And, he believes, this focus will enable him and his team to make rapid, tangible progress towards improving the way oil and gas are recovered from the ground.