May 30, 2022

Class of 2022: ‘Smart’ chemical at heart of engineering student’s refinements to thermal oil recovery

Mohammadali Ahmadi’s technology innovation uses less water while reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Mohammadali Ahmadi’s
Mohammadali Ahmadi worked in the Reservoir Research Simulation Group in the Schulich School of Engineering. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

World oil prices are much higher today compared to a few months ago. Mohammadali Ahmadi hopes producers take advantage of this moment in oilpatch history to invest in technologies that reduce their environmental footprint.

He can help with that.

Ahmadi is a chemical and petroleum engineering grad student at UCalgary who has been carefully running simulation tests of a promising new way to use steam to extract oil from Alberta’s oilsands. His lab-proven idea uses less water than conventional steam technologies, produces fewer carbon emissions, and delivers more oil, he explains.

Part of the Class of 2022, Ahmadi is getting ready to launch a data startup company and field-test his steam-tech refinements as he prepares to graduate from the Schulich School of Engineering and the Faculty of Graduate Studies. 

“If it works very well, it would be a game-changer for the oil industry,” says Ahmadi, whose research acumen earned him a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship in 2019 and the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship in 2020.

What problem inspired your interest in steam-assisted heavy oil recovery?

When I completed my master’s degrees and came to the University of Calgary from Memorial University, oil prices were depressed. Around the same time, environmental activists were asking for more action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially from the oilsands and bitumen plants in Alberta. I was inspired by Jack Ma (Chinese entrepreneur, investor and philosopher), who gave the advice that complaints can be business opportunities in disguise, if you change your viewpoint. So, for that reason, I started looking at thermal oil recovery processes, especially steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), and realized that there is room for improvement by adding some new things to this technology.

Steam-assisted oil recovery is a very big part of oilsands production in Alberta. What’s the significance of refining this technology now?

The SAGD process began mainly around 2000. Because of the boom in oil prices at that time, it was profitable for oil companies to begin investing heavily in SAGD. To produce oil using this method, you have to inject energy to produce energy. If the oil price is $140 per barrel, you are in good shape to pay the operational cost of around $40 per barrel. But, when the oil price came down, the marginal earning from this type of method was so narrow. And the environmental costs of implementing those technologies include the use of drinking water in the process and the emission of carbon into the atmosphere.

With the recent upturn in oil prices, producers have an opportunity to invest in new technologies again. I’m quite sure another oil-price downturn will come eventually. If we don’t invest in the new technologies now, we will not be in as strong a position to tolerate another storm in the market.

Your idea for improving steam-based oil recovery involves steam co-injection and surfactants. Can you explain these terms?

Various approaches have been used in the past to improve the performance of steam-based recovery.

During my PhD journey, in research published by Scientific Reports, I spotlight a promising approach: the application of surfactants in oil recovery. Surfactants, or surface active agents, are chemicals we use daily in shampoo, in soap, in anything that produces foam. Surfactants can be added or co-injected into steam during recovery of oil from a reservoir.

I investigated the molecular interactions between anionic surfactants, steam and bitumen in the high-temperature and high-pressure conditions specific to the Athabasca oilsands. In our modelling, we demonstrated that we can extract much more bitumen because of the interaction at the molecular level between that chemical and the bitumen. According to the simulation results, adding surfactants to the steam can improve the amount of oil recovered while reducing the amount of drinking water required.

In the field, what would the co-injection of surfactants look like?

Steam co-injection would require some modification to the current steam technology, adding a batch injection tank and mixer at the existing injection facility. This project has never been done before, it’s totally new, which uses recoverable surfactants. I call it a smart surfactant. When we inject the chemical and produce the bitumen, we can separate that chemical and reuse it again and again, injecting through that cycle, in a kind of closed loop.

Sounds amazing.

If it works very well, it would be a game-changer for the oil industry.

What was your biggest research obstacle? 

Actually, getting the data from oil producers! It was at the beginning of the pandemic and it was a terrible time for researchers in the oil industry because the oil price went negative. I couldn’t get data directly from them, so I did my best to find some reliable and useful information from the literature. And, fortunately, I did find one company that shared data in support of my research.

Was there a single moment of discovery or realization that you were on to something significant?

About a year ago, I'm not sure the exact day, I realized that the surfactant gets triggered by different conditions. Why I call it smart is because, if the condition of that surfactant changes, the behaviour of that surfactant will be changed. So, for example, if the temperature is high, it works in some direction, if the temperature gets low, it actually acts differently.

How did the Reservoir Research Simulation Group in the Schulich School of Engineering figure in your work? How did they help you move forward?

My knowledgeable supervisor, primary investigator Dr. Zhangxing (John) Chen, provided endless support during my PhD journey. The Reservoir Simulation Group provided me with the molecular dynamics simulation software that I worked with through the modelling stages. Dr. Matthew Clarke, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, provided support as well.

What’s next for your research?

During the pandemic, I realized that entrepreneurship is shaping our future. In the near future, I would like to take some courses in the Haskayne School of Business around entrepreneurship.

I’m at the beginning of starting my own data company to help oil companies apply this technology to their fields. Surfactants are not a magic bullet that everyone can use, but we can optimize them for the conditions of each reservoir and the oil producer’s facilities.

Entrepreneurial UCalgary grads make an impact in business, health care, culture, law, education and more. Read more stories about Class of 2022 students