The In Situ Combustion Research Team

2006 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.

With Alberta’s oil sands projected to produce two million barrels per day by 2010, researchers continue to explore sustainable methods for the recovery of heavy oil and bitumen. Recently, the In Situ Combustion Research Team with the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary made technical advances pointing to in situ combustion (ISC) as a process worthy of consideration.

The ISC process uses a wall of fire, driven by the injection of air or oxygen, to force the oil through the reservoir toward a well where it can be more easily extracted. The benefits of this method are that it does not require the vast amounts of water required for current methods, and compared to steam injection it has significantly higher energy efficiency and substantial environmental benefits.

While the process was patented in 1923 and has been successful in the laboratory, success in the field has been somewhat elusive to date. The team’s focus has been on ways to improve the in situ combustion enhanced oil recovery method, and minimize its risks.

The team has been conducting its research for more than 30 years, and from its formation in 1974 until the late 1990s, the group carried out leading-edge research. In 1998 when BP merged with Amoco, the University of Calgary was selected as the location for a state-of-the-art BP Air Injection Research Laboratory.

Through its research, the team has proven that in situ combustion is very technical and unforgiving, and the process cannot be mishandled. Researchers discovered that many operators of unsuccessful Canadian projects did not inject enough air into the wells for the process to function properly.  Another significant finding was that the reaction temperature must be at least 350°C to efficiently mobilize the oil and reduce the likelihood of low-temperature oxidation reactions.

Team members have also investigated the economics of the process compared with steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). While front-end costs for ISC are in some cases higher, the operating costs and source water requirements should be lower. ISC also has the potential to obtain additional oil recovery as a follow up to steam exploitation.

Today, the In Situ Combustion Research Team consists of about 30 people including eight research associates and 20 graduate students led by the University of Calgary’s Dr. Gordon Moore and Dr. S.A. (Raj) Mehta, both internationally recognized leaders in the area of in situ combustion technology. Together they have helped to establish over 20 international research and educational partnerships around the globe from China to Peru, bringing benefits to both the University and the Canadian oil industry.