Out-of-this-world technology could help oil sands take giant leap forward in reducing CO₂ emissions

A Calgary company’s leading-edge technology – originally used by NASA to search for life on Mars – is coming down to earth to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands.  Impossible Sensing Energy edged out competitors from around the world in a Pathways Alliance global challenge to find a key piece of measurement equipment that will…

A Calgary company’s leading-edge technology – originally used by NASA to search for life on Mars – is coming down to earth to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands. 

“We take great pride as a Canadian company in playing a role to help develop our country’s energy resources more sustainably and we are committed to helping Pathways Alliance achieve its net zero goal,” said Ariel Torre, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer of Impossible Sensing Energy. 

“Addressing the global energy challenge to reduce emissions, while ensuring the world benefits from responsible, safe and secure sources of energy to meet global demand is central to the work we do every day.”  

The company’s optical sensing technology, called FLOW, was awarded first prize among more than 50 global competitors – including those from a U.S. Ivy League University, Sweden, and the UK – in the challenge to find a measurement device that can continuously identify precise amounts of solvents recovered in oil sands production. 

The technology was first developed by the company’s U.S. affiliate for use by the Mars Perseverance Rover to find traces of life on the planet’s surface. The same advanced optical technology used to search for trace amounts of potential carbon-based past life on Mars can detect precise amounts of solvents (hydrocarbons) in the oil production stream.  

The increased use of solvents offers a breakthrough potential to reduce—or eliminate—the need for energy-intensive steam generation in steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) operations. 

Replacing steam in SAGD production with solvents could result in up to a 90% reduction of CO₂ emissions. 

However, to fully advance the process, the industry has been searching for a real-time, accurate method to measure the precise amounts and concentrations of solvents to maximize recycling throughout the full oil recovery process. 

“The tremendous response to this challenge continues to demonstrate the great level of partnership the oil sands industry has with leading innovators from around the world,” said Wes Jickling, Vice President, Technology Development for Pathways Alliance. 

“We know there is no single path to net zero and no one company or one sector can get there alone. It will require multiple pathways and collaboration with some of the world’s brightest minds. It’s great to see some of the brightest are right here in our own backyard.” 


  • Solvents – such as butane and propane – are naturally occurring in oil sands bitumen and are used as a much less energy intensive alternative to steam to help bitumen become fluid enough to flow to a producing well. 
  • The use of steam reduction technologies in oil sands extraction is one of the most promising and important technologies of dozens being advanced to help the Pathways Alliance reduce emissions by 22 million tonnes per year by 2030 and achieve its goal of net zero by 2050. 
  • Cost effectiveness is important in efforts to widely commercialize the use of solvents in oil sands production. The economics of solvent use is dependent on the ability to recycle it. By measuring the solvent in the production stream, it can be determined how much is being returned and can adjust processes to maximize recycling.  
  • The use of a real-time automated inline measurement tool will offer a more exact and reliable way than current manual snap-shot in time sampling and will improve recycling of solvents. This will help ensure the emissions reduction technology is advanced more quickly and cost effectively.  
  • Two more Calgary companies with a promising joint submission were chosen as runners up and will be awarded a technological-economic assessment valued at $35,000. Burnt Rock Technologies Ltd., a chemistry service company, and Exergy Solutions Inc., which provides advanced design solutions, submitted a proposal for a technology that’s already used in many industrial facilities and could be modified for use in the oil sands. 


Cautionary Statement: Statements of future events or conditions in this press release, including projections, targets, expectations, estimates, and business plans are forward-looking statements. Forward-looking statements can be identified by words such as achieve, aspiration, believe, anticipate, intend, propose, plan, goal, seek, project, predict, target, estimate, expect, forecast, vision, strategy, outlook, schedule, future, continue, likely, may, should, will and/or similar references to outcomes in future periods. Forward-looking statements in this press release include, but are not limited to, references to the viability, timing and impact of the net zero plan and the development of pathways in support of a net-zero future; support for the pathways from the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada; the ability to enable net zero emissions from oil production and preserve economic contribution from the industry; the deployment  of technologies to reduce GHG emissions; the ability to create jobs, accelerate development of the clean tech sector, provide benefits for other sectors and help maintain Canadians’ quality of life; and making economic investments to ensure a successful transition to a net zero world and delivering long term value to shareholders. All net-zero references in this announcement apply to emissions from oil sands operations (defined as scope 1 and scope 2 emissions).  

Forward-looking statements are based on current expectations, estimates, projections and assumptions at the time the statements are made. Actual future results, including expectations and assumptions concerning: demand growth and energy source, supply and mix; amount and timing of emissions reductions; the adoption and impact of new facilities or technologies, including on reductions to GHG emissions; project plans, timing, costs, technical evaluations and capacities, and the ability to effectively execute on these plans and operate assets; that any required support for the pathways from the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada will be provided; applicable laws and government policies, including climate change and restrictions in response to COVID-19; production rates, growth and mix; general market conditions; and capital and environmental expenditures, could differ materially depending on a number of factors. These factors include global, regional or local changes in supply and demand for oil, natural  gas, and petroleum and petrochemical products and the resulting price, differential and margin impacts; political or regulatory events, including changes in law or government policy and actions in response to COVID-19; the receipt, in a timely manner, of regulatory and third-party approvals including for new technologies; lack of required support from the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada; environmental risks inherent in oil and gas exploration and production activities; environmental regulation, including climate change and GHG regulation and changes to such regulation; availability and allocation of capital; availability and performance of third-party service providers; unanticipated technical or operational difficulties; project management and schedules and timely completion of projects; reservoir analysis and performance; unexpected technological developments; the results of research programs and new technologies, and ability to bring new technologies to commercial scale on a cost-competitive basis; operational hazards and risks; general economic conditions, including the occurrence and duration of economic recessions; and other factors referenced by the companies’ in their most recent respective annual reports and management’s discussion and analysis, as applicable.  

Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve a number of risks and uncertainties, some that are similar to other oil and gas companies and some that are unique to the companies. Actual results may differ materially from those expressed or implied by its forward-looking statements and readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on them. The companies undertake no obligation to update any forward-looking statements contained in this press release, except as required by applicable law. 

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