Photonic sensor developed to increase efficiency in oil extraction

A Calgary company has developed an infrared sensor that could improve the efficiency of oil production in thermal enhanced heavy oil recovery.

The patented nanophotonic spectrometer, which measures steam quality in real time, was invented at Luxmux Technology Corporation, founded by University of Calgary graduate Yonathan Dattner and University of Calgary Professor Orly Yadid-Pecht (Alberta’s iCORE Chair in Integrated Sensors and Intelligent Systems). Luxmux is working with its partners, which include a major heavy oil producer and a large oil and gas instrumentation company, on a pilot demonstration of the company’s new technology.

Dattner discovered his passion for photonics as a graduate student when he took a course offered by CMC Microsystems. “CMC got us started,” he said. “They helped introduce us to silicon photonics and provided training, tools and fabrication services that were essential to the company’s development.”

Almost half of the 2.4 million barrels of oil per day produced annually in Canada are extracted using steam. This is expected to double in the next ten years. Two billion kilograms of steam are produced every year in Canada for Thermal Enhanced Heavy Oil Recovery, according to Dattner, and oil producers spend $2.3 billion a year on natural gas to generate that steam.

But producers do not have an accurate way to measure steam quality at the boiler and at the well site. Most boilers are designed to operate at 80% steam quality, but in reality—due to the lack of online steam quality measurements—their operation is anywhere from 2%-8% less efficient. In heavy oil production, water returning with the oil is known as produced water. The quality of the produced water used to generate steam in heavy oil production contains a high concentration of contaminants. It is risky to go over the 80% steam quality with current water treatment capabilities in the industry because contaminants will deposit on the boiler tubes and cause tubes to rupture, leading to expensive shutdowns.

Most producers operate at lower steam qualities than 80% rather than risk a shut down. But with more accurate measurements, they could get closer to 80% with little risk. Producers would get more oil, but also use less natural gas to generate steam—and produce fewer greenhouse gases.

Luxmux, founded in 2012, has raised more than $4 million in capital from both the private sector and government sources, including nanoBridge, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures andthe National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program.

Luxmux has partnered with a major oil and gas instrumentation company, and is working closely with heavy oil producers on a pilot demonstration of Luxmux’s infrared sensor and related equipment. Luxmux is building state-of-the-art flow loops with its partners to demonstrate the technology. The next step is a full-scale demonstration at the boiler and at the well site.

Dattner anticipates a high demand for technology that can allow oil and gas producers to improve the quality of steam used to extract heavy oil. “Steam quality is one of the top priorities of producers,” he says. During the next ten years, Thermal Enhanced Heavy Oil Production in Canada is expected to double. He also notes that more than 10% of Canada’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions now come from burning natural gas from steam in heavy oil production, so better production efficiency will reduce the impact of growth in those emissions.

“I enjoy the business and application of new technology” he says, “especially identifying industry’s problems and finding innovative ways to solve them.”