In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry—in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
This issue of the EIB is a change from our usual round up.
A few weeks back we had the opportunity to take a trip to Carbon Management Canada’s Field Research Station (FRS) near Brooks, Alberta, for a tour of the facility and to see what researchers were working on.
Carbon Management Canada (CMC) is a not-for-profit organization started in 2009 to support research on technologies to reduce carbon emissions. They view the FRS as a carbon capture and storage (CCS) “playground”. The site is truly unique—researchers have access to an unusual combination of state-of-the-art instruments and monitoring equipment being used at a CO2 injection site that’s just 300 metres deep.
We were so impressed by the innovation occurring at the site that we thought it deserved its very own EIB issue. Below you will find the CMC team’s answers to our questions about what they do, how they do it, and what this work means for Canada as a CCS leader.
What’s the problem you are trying to solve?
Simply put, the FRS exists to answer the question of “how can we inject CO2 underground safely and efficiently, and ensure it stays where it’s supposed to?”
The race is on to reduce GHG emissions and meet global climate targets, and sequestering carbon is an increasingly important part of reaching those targets. But there are still technical problems to solve if we are to find sites for and construct CCS facilities at the rate required. Currently, CCS is used to store about 36 megatonnes of CO2 a year globally. We may need to scale that number to 6,000 megatonnes a year by 2050 to achieve climate goals. It sounds like a daunting task, but it’s not impossible.
Carbon Management Canada’s mission is to accelerate the development and implementation of innovative, commercially viable, GHG-reducing technologies. The FRS facilitates this innovation and is where theoretical research meets real world application. We constantly test new technologies and methods for injection, subsurface monitoring, and leak detection.
What is unique about this facility?
There is a lot that’s unique about the FRS, from size of the operation and the reservoir depth to our injection method and the equipment we have on hand.
Most large-scale CCS demonstration sites around the world inject up to one million tonnes of CO2 per year at depths of several kilometres below the surface. The FRS looks at the tougher question – what happens if something goes wrong? It was created to mimic a leak from a storage reservoir located deep underground, and to see what happens when escaped CO2 approaches the surface. In the last four years at the FRS, we’ve injected 45 tonnes of CO2 into a reservoir that is only 300 metres deep, simulating a leak and upward migration from a deeper large-scale storage site. At this shallow depth, CO2 behaves much differently than it does at greater depths due to the lower pressure and lower temperature. There is no other site in the world that offers researchers the opportunity to use their technologies to study CO2 behaviour at this depth. And because the site is located on the harsh Canadian Prairie, we can also see how extreme temperature variations (-40° to +40°) affect the CO2 injection process.
What is novel about your equipment and techniques?
The standard monitoring method for CCS operations is seismic testing, which basically bounces sound waves off rock to provide an image of what’s beneath the surface. At the FRS we’ve layered other techniques on top of traditional seismic: fibre optic strain and temperature monitoring, resistivity mapping, and electrical tomography to name a few. And the FRS has one of only two dual comb mass spectrometers in North America—a device capable of measuring atmospheric concentrations of every known gas down to parts per billion. The variety of monitoring methods used at this site could lead to new commercial approaches in the future that would require far less disturbance of land and vegetation and have a reduced impact on the people and animals in the area.
All of these technologies provide slightly different information about what is happening underground. It’s not unlike using a variety of technologies to peer inside your body. They each provide a slightly different view and when combined offer a more comprehensive picture than any single test would on its own.
Who comes to the FRS to work with you, and why?
We have had visitors from all over the world, including Australia, the EU, Norway, Iceland, Iran, Malaysia, the US, the UK, and across Canada. And it’s not just scientists either—in addition to university researchers we have hosted industry professionals, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and government officials.
They come to complete their own technology testing, but also for information about what we are working on. The FRS is a one-of-a-kind facility experimental facility available to anyone. Any organization can partner with the FRS and gain access to a viable working model to test their CCS activities, as well as five years of data to compare their methods against.
How does having the FRS help position Canada as a world leader in CCS?
The FRS puts Canada in an ideal position to develop standards and best practices for CCS projects and to influence policy and regulation regarding future development. We have the ability to build public confidence that CCS can be done safely, efficiently, and cost effectively. The rest of the world is already coming to us to test new technologies, and for the proof we can provide that there is no leakage from the reservoir.
You seem to be first / biggest / best in a lot of things. Like what?
We are the first CCS monitoring test site at an intermediate depth, the first small CO2 pool research facility, and the first sub-ideal geology CCS site. We are the only site using a dual comb mass spectrometer to baseline other testing against. We are also unusual because we are applying technologies used in other sectors such as mining and telecommunications, to monitor the underground movement of CO2.
You have some pretty neat equipment. What’s your favourite?
I think we each have our own favourite, but here are two:
- The down hole fibre optics which are used for temperature and strain measurements. Using fibre optics for subsurface imaging has been around for less than a decade, and we are the only site that is testing different fibre optic equipment for CO2
- The seven broadband seismometers that were installed by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are extremely sensitive and can detect vibrations as large as an earthquake on the other side of the world and as small as a paper clip falling off a desk at site.
How does this facility help generate new knowledge and opportunities for younger researchers (and future entrepreneurs) in energy?
As a testing and education facility, we support new and emerging research in the field and support the next generation of researchers and entrepreneurs. Our facility is inexpensive, accessible, and free of the red tape barriers found at other sites. We operate in partnership with the University of Calgary which allows us to attract young scientists to our facility, and our funding through the Global Research Initiative in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources supports Master’s students, PhDs and postdocs to work on new theories and ideas. There really are limitless opportunities for new research at the FRS—at this point we have more data than people to work on it.
Why is this located in Southern Alberta as opposed to Ontario, Germany or Japan? Is this technology, geology or politics?
It’s all three.
Alberta’s position as an oil and gas industry leader makes it a perfect location for CCS development, as similar technical understanding, drilling requirements, and geological conditions are needed for both. Here we have access to both the knowledge and geological conditions we need.
Alberta has also set the world standard for technical subsurface information sharing. This abundance of subsurface mapping and data makes Alberta the easiest and most innovative place for O&G exploration, and therefore CCS.
And a long history of oil and gas development here (near Brooks) means that local communities are familiar with what is required for drilling operations and wellsite management, so we are much less likely to run into concern or negative opinions about our work.
CCS often takes place where there is appropriate “pore space” in the geology. Will the research that happens here enable CCS to take place in locations around the world that may not have the same geology?
Yes. The reservoir we are injecting into—the Basal Belly River formation—is a low-quality reservoir that’s actually quite difficult to get CO2 into. If we can develop a process to make CCS work here, we can make it work anywhere. This will in turn open opportunities for other traditionally poor injection sites around the world.
Can you tell us about the cows? They are all around the FRS station, and they emit methane too. Doesn’t that screw up your measurements?
Being located where we are means there are plenty of cattle around, but they do not mess up our testing. One of the advantages of the methane monitoring technologies we have onsite is that we can differentiate between the ‘fingerprints’ of different sources of methane. This means we can tell whether the methane we find in the atmosphere came from our site, from cow burps, or from some other source. This information is critical to companies who need to know if a source of methane is from one of their facilities or from another source like decaying plants or a near-surface coal seam. Our ability to continually monitor and provide controlled releases of methane, allow us to support the calibration and testing of new monitoring technologies, including satellites, drones, and airplanes.
Your research helps solve technical challenges. But will it also help address public concerns or misconceptions about CCS and/or methane emissions?
We certainly hope so. One of our goals at the FRS is to advance government and public confidence in the safety of the process, and to provide public assurance that the CO2 stored underground can and will be tracked for decades or centuries. CCS is often difficult for the public to understand, but when physical proof is provided, it is much easier to comprehend. Our aim is to offer that proof. Public consultation is required by regulators before siting any new CCS facility, and the more information developers can offer area residents about the safety and security of stored CO2, the greater the chances are that the site will be approved by both the public and government.
What do you want people to take away or remember about the FRS?
The FRS is a playground for technology development and CCS implementation. It is certainly the epicenter for CCS in Canada, and it is open and accessible to anyone. The amount of worldwide attention the FRS already gets is staggering, but we need continued financial backing to keep Canada at the forefront of this energy transition. And we need public support for sites like the FRS so that Canada can continue to attract the best and brightest in this space. If we can achieve this, research at facilities like the FRS will lead to Canada being the go-to nation for technical support and practical implementation of CCS technologies.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Marla Orenstein and Brendan Cooke. This month’s edition features contributions by Brendan Cooke and the staff of Carbon Management Canada. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .
Photo: Carbon Management Canada (CMC)