Maini, Dr. Brij

2015 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Improving oil production through collaborative SAGD research

As we develop as professionals, we often dream of dedicating a lifetime of work to a greater cause, but it takes somebody truly exceptional to dedicate 30 or 40 years to the same subject.

That’s what Dr. Brij Maini, professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary, has been doing since he first set foot in Alberta to work with heavy oil production.

“I’ve been at it for about 40 years now,” Dr. Maini says. “I started in the late 1970s when I joined Petroleum Recovery Institute, which was a research organization funded by industry and by the Alberta government.”

Over that time, Dr. Maini has seen a lot of changes in the oil industry, and as an expert in his field he has been responsible for many of those changes. The bulk of his work has provided a mechanistic understanding of the heavy oil recovery processes.

A lifetime of achievement

Dr. Maini says when his team first began, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about heavy oil recovery. Most of the understanding about the nature and properties of oil had to be further developed by his team which then allowed them to use the results to implement better production techniques.

“We took a look at foamy oil flow, which is a key factor in cold heavy oil production with sand,” Dr. Maini says. “After moving to the University of Calgary I started primarily looking at steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) process. We look at how to improve the SAGD process by using steam additives.”

Dr. Maini says his work is to limit the negative impact of oil production by using as few resources as possible.

“We really have to look at the ways at making the recovery process more efficient to reduce the amount of steam required to produce each barrel of oil,” Dr. Maini says. “The best way to do this is by adding some sort of additive to the steam, and we’ve been investigating what kind of additives have the most positive impact for quite some time.”

Dr. Maini has published nearly 100 peer reviewed papers in journals. The bulk of his work uses an efficiency- first mentality to make oil production processes better for the economy and the environment.

Building a better community together

Dr. Maini says it’s important to tackle oil production efficiency because heavy oil recovery consumes a lot of fresh water and releases CO2 into the environment. Without proper care the impact could be devastating.

“Water can be recycled, but the amount of CO2 released is an issue. If we can reduce the amount of steam needed for each barrel, we can reduce the amount of CO2 released as a result,” Dr. Maini says.

He says there’s also an economic benefit to his work because his team can learn more from less by testing different ideas on a smaller scale. Dr. Maini attributes his team’s success to the oil community as a whole, because he says oil producers in Alberta maintain a shared vision of a successful Alberta.

“Alberta has some good things going for it, and one thing is the oil industry is comprised of a lot of smaller companies, rather than one or two multi-national companies,” Dr. Maini says. “Because it’s a larger community, companies are more open to sharing their problems and discussing what they need to achieve.”

Dr. Maini says the willingness of the community to work together makes it easy to make heavy oil recovery efficient, because it allows researchers to crowd-source information. Efficient oil production is in the interest of every Albertan, and working together makes it easier to tackle some of the bigger challenges in the industry.