The Innovators

The Innovators, final
Bringing solutions to the forefront while helping solve key environmental challenges for Canada's oil and natural gas industry.

Helen Zhang: Making Greener Offshore Dispersants

Dr. Zhang

THE INNOVATOR: Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang, Associate Professor Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

DR. ZHANG is an associate professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador. A member of their civil engineering department, she has focused her research on the development of environmental technologies for sustainable development of natural resources in ocean and harsh environments.

THE CHALLENGE: While marine oil spills are rare, spill mitigation and clean-up can be challenging. Physical methods of collecting the oil on the surface using booms and absorbent sweeps are effective in relatively calm waters. Dispersants—compounds that break an oil slick into dispersed droplets— can be effective under harsh wind and wave conditions such as frequently exist in the north Atlantic Ocean off Canada’s East Coast. Novel, environmentally friendly and cost-effective dispersants which can be applied in the region are thus needed.

THE INNOVATION: Dr. Zhang and her team of researchers at Memorial University recently completed a study that explores the possibility that bacteria could be used to create compounds called biosurfactants. These biologically produced compounds could be used to generate bio-dispersants in case of an oil spill.
By isolating biosurfactant-producing bacteria from the north Atlantic Ocean, Dr. Zhang increased the likelihood that the green bio-dispersants created would be highly biodegradable via indigenous bacteria, and effective under cold-water conditions.

Over the course of a three-year study, co-funded by Newfoundland and Labrador’s Research Development Corporation (RDC) and the industry supported Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador (PRNL), Dr. Zhang and her team tested thousands of different strains of bacteria. She was able to narrow her focus to five strains of bacteria capable of producing biosurfactants. She then explored how process optimization and genetic enhancements could be used to increase biosurfactant yield and effectiveness.

“The bacterial strains we isolated and the associated bio-dispersants work pretty well,” concluded Dr. Zhang, though with the proviso that further testing is needed to ensure the technology can be scaled up to work on a commercial scale.

THOUGHTS ON INNOVATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT: Dr. Zhang earned her Bachelor and Masters degrees from the renowned Jilin University in China. She came to Canada in 2001, completing a doctoral degree in environmental systems engineering from the University of Regina. She joined Memorial University in 2010 and received early tenure in 2015.

An expert in the area of biotechnology, Zhang notes, “I’m personally very interested in biotechnologies: they can be very environmentally friendly, particularly when applied to waste management issues related to resource development.”
Dr. Zhang adds that she enjoys the independence she’s permitted as a researcher within Canada’s particular academic environment, and the opportunity to work with peers on real-world problems in collaboration with industry. She especially enjoys the opportunity to be truly innovative.

”As a researcher, I’m always trying to look forward to the next generation technologies. Innovation is my first concern,” says Dr. Zhang.

Aref Najafi: Solving the Tailings Challenge

Dr. Najafi
THE INNOVATOR: Dr. Aref Najafi, Process Innovation Lead Bitumen Production, Horizon Oil Sands, Canadian Natural Resources Limited
AS THE PROCESS INNOVATION LEAD with bitumen production at Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Dr. Najafi’s title almost says it all—it’s his team’s job to come up with innovative new processes to improve both environmental performance and cost efficiencies for oil sands operations at Canadian Natural.

THE CHALLENGE: A byproduct of oil sands mining extraction of bitumen is fine fluid tailings. These are a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual oil that are stored in ponds during mining operations to allow continuous recycling of process water. Unfortunately, without intervention, it can take up to 50 years for tailings to consolidate and dry out, delaying land reclamation of the site. Companies are developing technologies to accelerate the conversion of tailings into a stable, solid material suitable for reclamation. While these technologies have shown promise in a lab setting, it can be tough to know how they’ll respond to realworld conditions.

THE INNOVATION: Dr. Najafi led the creation of the Applied Process Innovation Center (APIC), a 3,600-square-foot facility located at Canadian Natural’s Horizon Oil Sands site. APIC can recreate all phases of tailings technologies—from treatment in a plant to deposition into a pond, and long-term settling over time—while simulating a host of variable conditions, including weather.

“For example,” Dr. Najafi notes, “What happens if there are storm conditions? Will the material break down and fail?”
Using state-of-the-art equipment, computer software and mathematical models, researchers at APIC can test the robustness of their tailings technologies against things like seasonal variation, extreme weather conditions, and changes in the chemical composition of the tailings. As well, using specialized pressure and temperature-controlled chambers, it’s possible in just weeks to simulate what the tailings material would look like after decades of exposure in the real world.

These kinds of simulations enable companies to test their tailings technologies, discover weaknesses and risks for failure, and find solutions to eliminate them.
Dr. Najafi is using APIC to test and enhance Canadian Natural’s Non-Segregated Tailings (NST) technology, which dewaters tailings so that they form a homogeneous, semi-cohesive mass when deposited. “The results are very encouraging,” he says, “I believe because of adopting the culture of innovation, our tailings challenge is under control. That’s a big achievement for us.”

THOUGHTS ON INNOVATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT: Born and raised in Iran, Dr. Najafi moved to Canada, obtaining a Master of Reservoir Engineering from the University of Calgary, and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Alberta. He got into the oil sands and then tailings research because he loves a unique challenge with practical applications. “The most exciting part of my work is the freedom to try different approaches and ideas, to apply out-of-the-box thinking while solving real-world problems,” he says.

He credits his team’s success to the innovation culture at Canadian Natural, including embracing Lean Six Sigma, an organizational methodology for encouraging continuous improvement among staff, from leadership to management and front-line workers.

With designations as an Environmental Professional (EP) registered with ECO Canada and a Certified Energy Manager (CEM) with the Association of Energy Engineers,
Dr. Najafi is passionate about protecting the environment. He notes that what’s good for the environment is often good for the business as well. “If we reduce the size of tailings ponds, that’s good for the environment. But it also saves cost because we don’t have to maintain a large area for tailings.”

Bill O'Neil: Making Safer Fracturing Additives

THE INNOVATOR: Bill O’Neil, Lab Manager, Trican Research and Development Centre
AS THE LAB MANAGER of Trican’s Research and Development hub, Bill O’Neil leads a staff of 22 chemists and technicians. Their focus is on developing the next generation of fracturing fluid additives and cement compounds for wellbore isolation.

THE CHALLENGE: Hydraulic fracturing involves the use of water pumped under pressure deep into the earth to fracture shale formations, thereby releasing embedded natural gas or oil. The water is mixed with sand, as well as a variety of additives that perform key functions such as reducing friction (allowing less water and/or higher pressures to be used) and preventing corrosion of the well pipe. There are concerns, however, that some additives can be harmful to the environment and unsafe for workers.

THE INNOVATION: To meet the needs of upstream producers focused on environmentally safe yet cost-effective products, O’Neil’s team has developed a number of clean technology product lines, including hydraulic fracturing fluid additives that are near food-grade specification.

“We also had an internal strategy to systematically eliminate bad additives— compounds with persisting toxic effects,” says O’Neil. “Why expose our own people and the environment to these additives when we can find or develop alternatives?”

A recent innovation that O’Neil is especially proud of is the development of friction reducers that can be transported as dry powder products to a hydraulic fracturing well site before being mixed into the fracturing fluid.

“Normally these compounds exist in liquid form—suspended in petroleum oil, which means there’s a risk of a spill during transport,” says O’Neil. Moving to a powder form means less material needs to be hauled to the site—reducing environmental risk, GHG emissions and road damage.

THOUGHTS ON INNOVATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT: O’Neil first joined Trican as a summer student lab technician 21 years ago, and hasn’t looked back. He appreciates the investment Trican has made to research and development while fostering a culture of innovation.

“We’re given the opportunity to really explore—to play with new ideas and approaches and daydream solutions to problems. We’ll never lose that—not under my watch,” O’Neil says.

O’Neil strongly believes that robust resource development and strong environmental standards can coexist, particularly with a focus on continuous improvement.
“I absolutely believe we can operate and be absolutely safe. In my time with the industry, we’ve made great strides—even in things like managing a site, equipment design and other technologies. There are things today that didn’t even exist 20 years ago.”