Innovation Hacks: Industry searches the world for solutions to sustainable development 

When it comes to responsible development, Pathways Alliance members are always looking to up their game. They regularly search for new technologies to tackle important oil sands industry challenges and find new ways to reduce emissions, restore the land and preserve biodiversity.  

The industry has access to a deep network of alliances with Canadian universities and research institutes to find technology solutions. It also works closely with accelerators (organizations that help early-stage tech companies develop their product, grow their business model, and connect with investors) who refer start-ups with promising technologies to them.  

In many cases, once industry has identified a specific need, it knows who in the ecosystem – a university researcher perhaps, or specific company – is able to develop the solution. But when that isn’t enough, it goes global and reaches out to specialist companies with networks of innovators to quickly identify the best solution providers around the world.  

In fact, in this version of Innovation Hacks the industry’s solution came after searching the galaxy. 

When looking for a solvent measurement tool to provide real time data from inside the production well. Tests with solvent technologies show they have huge potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing steam in in situ operations. Adding this critical piece of measurement technology would allow industry to take solvent technology development to the next level of development and move it one step closer to commercialization. 

Solvents, such as butane and propane, occur naturally in bitumen and industry is testing them in novel steam reduction technologies where they bitumen become fluid enough to flow to a producing well. In testing, they have demonstrated potential to significantly reduce water use in in situ facilities — and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%. 

Pathways Alliance partnered with Plug and Play Alberta to conduct a global search through the organization’s extensive innovator network of 60,000 start-ups, universities, and government agencies in multiple sectors around the world. Given the technical complexity of the technology that industry was seeking, Plug and Play vetted innovators extensively to ensure their technology would address industry’s specific needs.  

Four months later, they had identified 50 technologies that could potentially fit the bill. This list was vetted down to six early-stage technology providers from Canada, Europe and the U.S. who were invited to take part in a virtual pitch event judged by representatives from Pathways Alliance members. The winner was Impossible Sensing Energy, an Alberta based company with optical sensing technology that was first developed by its U.S. affiliate for use by the Mars Perseverance Rover to find traces of life on the planet’s surface.

The same advanced technology that can trace small amounts of potential carbon-based past life on other planets can also precisely detect small amounts of solvents (hydrocarbons) recovered in the oil production well. Pathways Alliance members are now in discussions to further develop the technology for a field trial. 

To see other stories in the Innovation Hacks series, check out our For Innovators page.