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03. 02. 2015,

Canada’s Top Energy Innovators 2015

From environmental reclamation to operational excellence, Canada’s Top Energy Innovators are pushing hard on their industry’s leading edges

And because it used negligible amounts of water, it was better for the environment as well. “It’s anideal technical solution,” former Petrobank COO Chris Bloomer said. It was so ideal, in fact, that it enjoyed a place of prominence in a video on innovation that was produced in the mid-2000s, and which still plays today at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray.In retrospect, it almost sounded too good to be true. Toe-to-heel air injection, or THAI, was a process that combined controlled combustion with vertical and horizontal wells and promised to produce higher volumes of partially upgraded oil at a fraction of the cost of existing methods.

Unfortunately, it didn’t unfold quite the way its proponents had hoped. Rather than revolutionizing the way heavy oil is extracted in Alberta, the technology has consistently failed to even meet the results set by more traditional methods of SAGD and nearly bankrupted the company that invested so much time and money into it in the process. Despite a major corporate restructuring and a shift out of the Athabasca oil sands and into Saskatchewan, Petrobank could never translate THAI’s technological potential into meaningful production gains on its various properties and demonstration projects. Last March, after the results at its Kerrobert property continued to underwhelm, Petrobank agreed to merge with Touchstone Exploration in order to form a new company that would focus its efforts on Touchstone’s assets in Trinidad. The only mention of THAI in the press release heralding the deal was a footnote indicating that the company would be “continuing our commitment to eliminate the negative operating cash flows from the Kerrobert THAI project.”

Did Petrobank’s executives oversell the possibilities associated with THAI? Maybe. But maybe, like so many ideas that promise to move the oil and gas sector forward, it will take longer to demonstrate its value than first expected. Hydraulic fracturing, after all, was around for decades before it transformed the U.S. shale industry into a global powerhouse. Not all technologies immediately find their market, or generate the kind of return that’s needed in order to grow it. But that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily a failure either. It’s entirely possible that, one day, THAI will do for heavy oil deposits what hydraulic fracturing has done for shale.

How will the 26 innovations and technologies (yes, 26 – we can be innovative too) on our inaugural list of Canada’s Top Energy Innovators fare? To be honest, we have no idea. That’s the nature of innovation – the reward can’t come without some risk, and sometimes a product or process that seems destined to succeed ends in failure. What matters is that the people and the companies they work for continue to take those risks. In the 21st century, geology and geography are no longer enough to win. If Canada’s energy sector is going to create as much prosperity over the next 50 years as it did over the last 50, it’s going to have to continue to invest in technology and the high-wattage brains that can both put it to best uses and then make it better. That is the most important renewable resource we have.

The Innovator: Colleen Legzdins

The Environment 

As in the wider world, access to clean water is an increasingly important asset in the energy industry. Clean water output is no longer just a favor to the planet but a requirement for doing business that shows up on balance sheets. Treating waste from water-intensive industries like fracking, oil sands mining and SAGD is expensive, labor- and chemical-intensive and, let’s face it, not always reliable.

But after cutting her teeth pioneering early-stage hydrogen fuel cells, Axine Water Technologies founder and chief engineer Colleen Legzdins set out to change all that. The result is a quick, low-cost, chemical-free, one-step technology that uses electrochemical oxidation to remove high concentrations of environmental pollutants from industrial wastewater. The cell-based system is modular and scalable, and can “plug in” to any size project without disrupting existing mining or refining processes. The water that comes out isn’t drinkable, but it is reuseable on site in various applications, creating a clean-water loop that industry won’t have to keep going back to the well for.