Perhaps the most underrated pioneers and innovators in the oil and gas industry are those who are tackling the most challenging research. Individuals such as Gary Bunio, who heads the Oil Sands Strategic Technology Department at Suncor and Dr. Ian Gates, Head of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary. This article profiles Dr. Gates’s career and research. As a veteran researcher, Dr. Gates has consulted with nearly every high ranking oil and gas company in Alberta and numerous others in Canada, the US and overseas. When I sat down to talk to him, he had just returned from an oil and gas conference in Beijing, China and spoke about reassuring executives of Alberta’s potential even in the current economic climate.
From horizontal drilling which paved the way for SAGD, to fracking that opened the door for difficult to extract shale deposits, no one can deny the fact that the oil and gas industry has made some remarkable strides. Yet, our industry is constantly facing old and new challenges that not only impact a single company but the national economy.
According to a study conducted by research powerhouse PwC, the oil and gas industry needs pioneers like Dr. Gates: “In order to progress into the unknown, we need people who are more transformational in their thinking, with backgrounds outside the industry, and who are not intent on maintaining the status quo”, PwC Study – Gateway to growth: Innovation in the oil and gas industry.
Dr. Gates also has a background outside of the industry. He completed his Masters at the University of British Columbia followed by his PhD at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He began his career at 3M. He was assigned to multi-phase flow in the department of coating systems within the United States before moving back to Calgary to join Imperial Oil. There, he worked under Gary Bunio in the oil sands department. It was here that Dr. Gates first applied non oil and gas thinking to help him optimize processes. “I started to think of oil and gas in the sense of a manufacturing process: if you put in a stimulus you will get back a product. Or, in our case, steam.” After working at Imperial for seven years, Dr. Gates joined the University of Calgary faculty in 2004.
“Innovation is finding
new solutions to old problems
and future innovation in our sector
will be driven by collaboration
such as Suncor’s Water Technology Development Center.”
– Dr. Ian Gates
With the growing concerns of the amount of water needed to run SAGD operations, the Water Technology Development Center was developed by the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) as a means to foster collaboration between the major stakeholders in the Oil Sands. COSIA recognized the need for major technical innovations in the Oil Sands and that the issues at hand are too large for one company to tackle alone. The WTDC hopes to begin research in 2017 with Suncor constructing, owning and operating at their Firebag facility. Partnering with CNRL, Devon, Nexen, Husky and Shell, the aim of the $165-million dollar project is the testing of new water treatment and recycle technologies. “The WTDC will help us speed up the pace of innovation, while collaboratively managing the risks and costs of technology development”, Steve Williams, president and chief executive officer of Suncor stated in a news release in 2014.
With the current economic climate in Alberta, innovation in the oil and gas sector must draw on a wide range of technologies and expertise and cannot be centered on technical innovations alone. Dr. Gates states it best when he says, “Alberta needs a cultural change within companies, not just a technical change for innovation but a management change, a real cultural change in how you think. We need success stories but maybe we don’t need to grow as fast as we have been but in a more measured way.”
In his consulting work with oil and gas companies, Dr. Gates sees the importance of innovation every day and strives to pursue diverse research topics, which are current issues that the industry faces. Some of his current research includes, but is not limited to: Heavy Oil and Oil Sands Recovery Process Design, Cold Production of Heavy Oil with Sand (CHOPS), Thermal Recovery Technologies (Cyclic Steam Stimulation, CSS, Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage, SAGD), Thermal-Solvent Hybrid Recovery Technologies, Inwell Flow Devices for Improved Steam Conformance and Performance in SAGD, Optimization of Recovery Processes, Reservoir Management, SmartWells in Heavy Oil and Oil Sands Fields, Reactive Reservoir Simulation (Aquathermolysis, H2S, CO2 generation in steam-based recovery processes), Steam-Air Injection Process Design, Thermal and Conventional Reservoir Simulation.
He has over 15 patents issued, 20 currently pending and 5 more in the works, in ground breaking research. Within the context of innovation, Dr. Gates said one of the things he is doing is looking for new solutions to old problems. For example, his research group has been developing technologies to perform partial upgrading at room temperature in order to lower diluent loading. This is one example were he has applied technology from a completely different area to an Oil Sands application. Other exciting research he is conducting, is solid phase transport for railway transport of bitumen. Instead of transporting liquid bitumen, which is dangerous, he recently filed a patent for converting bitumen into pellets to allow for easier and safer rail transport. This is impressive research that is much needed during the current decline in pipeline approvals. He is also looking at the recovery of bitumen at atmospheric conditions and extracting bitumen in shallow resources without the use of steam, where the energy intensity can be half of that needed for SAGD. A lot of his research is related to Steam Oil Ratio (SOR), as he believes this ideally shows a company’s cost per unit savings.
With his charismatic personality and easy to understand lectures, it is no wonder Dr. Gates is a student favorite at the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary. Throughout the years, he has been recognized for his teaching with various awards including the Schulich School of Engineering Award in 2015, Schulich School of Engineering Mentoring Excellence Award in 2014, Professor of the Year in 2014, Student Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013, and Killam Innovation in Teaching Award in 2013.
In between teaching undergraduate and graduate level courses, his duties as the Head of the Chemical and Petroleum Department and running the university’s Gates Research Group, Dr. Gates has been involved with many successful start-up ventures. This includes one that was purchased by Schlumberger in 2013. These companies included Gates Research Consulting Ltd, Gushor Inc., Profero Inc and his current company Ideas for Dynamic Growth Ltd.
He has also been recognized for his achievements in start-up ventures, commercialization and technology transfer. In 2012, he received the Achievement in Innovation award from Innovate Calgary and has also been a recipient of the ASTECH Award for outstanding commercial achievement in science and technology.
Since the beginning of 2015, Dr. Gates has received more than a million dollars in research grants from various research bodies including the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), The Petroleum Technology Research Center and companies such as Suncor. To date,
he has received nearly six million dollars in funding. He has been invited to speak at various industry events and teach short courses at companies such as Shell, Nexen, Schlumberger, Chevron and Laracina Energy. He has spoken at nearly 100 conferences including the Canadian International Petroleum Conference, World Heavy Oil Congress and the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
As a former Chemical Engineering student at the University of Calgary, Dr. Gates never imagined that one day he would end up teaching back at the university, much less being the university’s top researcher and the Head of the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering department.
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