Oct. 11, 2018

Meeting the world’s demand for answers

Chemical and Petroleum engineering professor Dr. Josephine Hill (PhD) is developing a process that turns petroleum coke, a waste material from heavy oil extraction, into a product that can actually aid production further down the line.
Dr. Josephine Hill (PhD) Catalysis Lab

Living in the energy capital of Canada, Calgarians bear an impressive responsibility to help ensure the country’s supply is ample, sustainable, and safe. Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering are constantly finding new ways to extract resources, harvest renewable energy, and improve safety and environmental stewardship in the industry. Their work is creating a new energy future for Canada, one that puts the country at the forefront of addressing a global concern.

A catalyst for cleaner oil production

Alleviating environmental concerns surrounding resource extraction in the oil sands has been a constant source of inquiry for Schulich researchers, including Dr. Josephine Hill (PhD). The professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering is developing a process that turns petroleum coke, a waste material from heavy oil extraction, into a product that can actually aid production further down the line.

“We have millions of tons of petroleum coke stockpiled in Alberta,” says Hill, who holds the Tier II Canada Research Chair in Hydrogen and Catalysis. “It would be nice if we could do something with it. What we’ve been doing is converting it into a catalyst to help remove contaminants like sulphur and nitrogen further on in the upgrading process. It seems to make sense if you can reuse what would otherwise be a waste material and take advantage of what it can do.”

This comes with its own set of problems, however. Hill points out, the chemical agent and washing solutions that are used in that process become new forms of waste. So far, her group has been able to reuse the chemical agent up to six times and Hill says work is being done to find ways to recycle it completely. They’re also trying to find uses for the sulphur that’s removed in the process.

Sensing leaks before they happen

Pipelines are getting a lot of press these days as we try to balance the need to move product with concern over safety and the environment. Dr. Seonghwan (Sam) Kim (PhD), an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, is developing highly-sensitive monitoring technology that he hopes will mitigate some of that unease and boost public confidence in pipelines.

“Commercially available microchip sensors are inexpensive but their sensitivity is quite low,” says Kim, who holds the Tier II Canada Research Chair in Nano Sensing Systems. “And even if you can detect something at very low concentrations, if you can’t tell what it is, that’s a problem. I’m developing a very sensitive and selective device that can detect gas and vapours at the parts-per-billion level. I’m also developing a nanomaterial that will only interact with certain gasses or vapours.”

Kim is not only developing these highly-sensitive, selective sensors, he’s also making them less expensive. His hope is to see them mounted on pipelines and other energy structures around the world so companies and regulators can more easily and quickly detect any potential problems.

Finding solutions before the problems arise

There’s a common understanding amongst those in the energy industry: when it comes to environmental stewardship, there is always room to improve. Dr. Joule Bergerson (PhD), an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, spends her days looking for those solutions. As the Canada Research Chair in Energy Technology Assessment, Bergerson studies the potential environmental impact that emerging technologies could have throughout the entire cycle of their use. Whether she’s looking at the electricity system, options for energy storage or how we can integrate renewables into our current energy use, Bergerson’s goal is to understand how each small change will influence a project’s overall environmental performance.

“We’re looking at these technologies in the broader context,” she says. “For example, examining a fuel cell that might be using a material that, when it gets to commercial scale, could increase the environmental impact of mining activities. So we see what insights we can discover about the technology’s performance then return that knowledge to the developers to help them prioritize research and understand where there are potential, unintended consequences.”

Bergerson says she’s always been environmentally-minded with a desire to make the world a better place. While her original plan was to enter medicine, she soon realized her problem-solving skills would be best used in engineering research, finding ways to turn idealistic solutions into pragmatic reality. Society is facing some challenging decisions about energy use and the effect it has on the planet. Bergerson is hopeful her work can help broaden our understanding of the role different technologies can play in our search for workable, alternative solutions.