Out of This World Solution to Oil Sands Emissions

Johnny Wentzel
 NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover
Courtesy of NASA JPL

From innovative technologies like the CAT Scan to expensive clothes drying racks like the Bowflex, NASA is responsible for developing many technologies for space exploration that eventually get adopted by us down on Earth. Now, a technology built for NASA may be used to reduce Canadian oil sands carbon emissions.

What happened: Impossible Sensing Energy, a Calgary-based optics company, was selected to trial a technology that will detect small amounts of solvents, like propane and butane, in the extraction of hydrocarbons from the Canadian oil sands in an effort to reduce steam use.

  • This technology was first implemented aboard NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover as it searched for complex hydrocarbons — possible indications of ancient life — on the Martian surface.

Why it matters: The oil sands are one of Canada’s largest sources of carbon emissions, accounting for 11 percent of the country’s total. Nearly half of those are the result of burning natural gas to create steam, used to help the extremely viscous oil to flow out of the ground.

Oil operators have considered using propane and butane solvents in place of steam to get the oil to flow, but it’s expensive and the economics just didn’t work.

Enter: Impossible Sensing Energy

Using their highly accurate optical sensing technology, the company can figure out precisely how much solvent is returned from a well, so that it can be recycled and used again. If the recovery rate is high enough, using recycled solvents may be a viable alternative to steam in oil sands production.

Zoom out: Although operating on Mars seems like a pretty thorough proof of concept, time will tell if Impossible Sensing Energy’s technology causes a shift in the way the oil sands are mined and produced.

Moving away from steam in the oilsands would make a sizable dent in Canada’s path to net-zero emissions by 2050.