2019 Finalist: Outstanding Achievement in Energy and Environmental Innovation sponsored by Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Simulating Outcomes in Hours, Not Years
An understanding of geotechnical mechanisms of deformation and failure over long periods of time is needed to mitigate long-term risks associated with energy projects. Spearheaded by Dr. Rick Chalaturnyk, the Reservoir Geomechanics Research Group at the University of Alberta develops tools to test and collect accurate and reliable data in hours, not decades, through a number of novel research facilities and experimental modelling processes.
What problem or opportunity did you identify and seek to address?
The Geotechnical Centrifuge Experimental Research Facility is part of the Geomechanical Reservoir Experimental Facility. We use that facility to generate samples and conduct tests. GeoCERF was initially aimed at physical modeling, which is a separate area of geotechnical engineering that allows you to take scale models and spin them very quickly in a centrifuge to gain long-term insights into tailings behaviour under field-accurate conditions in the oil sands industry.
When GeoCERF was established in the late 2000s, it had two focuses. The first focus was on cap rock integrity and the risk and safety issues around thermal recovery injection programs, ensuring cap rocks remain safe and intact during the recovery process. The other focus was on legacy tailings management technologies.
What has been the impact?
On the tailing side, the GeoCERF beam centrifuge generates a year’s worth of data in a very short period of time. We can put a tailing sample into the centrifuge with whatever characteristics the industry is interested in; we can spin it for 48 hours and generate 30 years worth of history. With our facility, companies with different mines and different locations can explore their own unique solutions around tailings management challenges.
We allow them to fail fast. You can mix tailings with four different polymers, chemicals, and treatments and spin them all together in a very consistent environment over a short period of time. In those 48 hours, we generate behavioural data that shows the performance over 30 years, allowing you to make defensible decisions regarding the next steps.
Many members of COSIA have used our facility to make rapid decisions to develop safer field programs.
How has being in Alberta helped you find success?
At universities, a lot of the funding for this infrastructure comes from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. There’s a significant Alberta section where the Alberta government—through an Advanced Education grant—matches CFI’s component. GeoCERF would not exist without the advantage of being in Alberta.
There are a lot of challenges around the world with tailings. At GeoCERF, the ability to provide industry solutions in Alberta to help improve decision-making around the technical, economic and risk management challenges is really important. We’re staying close to home and helping industry move forward with these innovations.
Who have been your major supporters?
Industry was very supportive of GeoCERF on the front-end. Physical modeling is a different monster. Many of the initial companies and people who believed in us gave us the patience to trial the technology and conduct the right tests to make sure that the physics in the tailings behaved correctly in the centrifuge environment. We had to ensure we were getting the data and information they needed.
A very large industrial research chair program, with support from multiple companies, helped push GeoCERF to where it is today. We had great support from the University of Alberta because they allowed us to dig a four-metre by six-metre hole in the basement of this building to put the centrifuge in.
What are the plans for the future?
We’re quite excited about where GeoCERF will go. We’ve heard lots of questions from people utilizing the GeoCERF environment and they want to apply advanced technologies inside these high g-force environments.
It’s challenging because when you spin something at a hundred G’s, you need very specialized equipment. We’re looking how we can embed fibre optic systems into these models to provide detailed performance data in-flight over that 30-year time period. This technology will really help companies take their tailings management decision-making to the next level.
Companies also worry about other things in tailings, such as solid contents and saturation levels. We’d like to measure all of those readings dynamically and I think there is support from industry to do it. On the cap rock side, we initially had the designs for the centrifuge to be able to inject steam and fluids into these models in-flight with more realistic conditions to the in situ environment. It’s an exciting chapter that we’ll be tackling over the next couple of years.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
Being an ASTech Finalist, and the recognition for the GeoCERF team, is very rewarding. It means our effort and time on this project has been recognized by our peers. There is exciting stuff happening in Alberta and it’s a fantastic nod that we’re going in the right direction and doing things to support Alberta industry.