Over the past decade, Professor Zhangxing (John) Chen’s high-tech laboratory has become the place to evaluate new ideas for extracting oil in safer, cleaner and cheaper ways. Now, one of Canada’s most distinguished researchers in petroleum reservoir simulation is receiving national recognition for his ongoing collaboration between scientists and industry partners to spark innovation across the energy sector.
By visualizing oil and gas reservoirs in greater and greater detail through realistic simulations, Chen’s research team at the Schulich School of Engineering offers the most insightful picture of what is happening deep within the subsurface without having to dig. Their visualizations help industry partners evaluate new extraction methods for their potential — and for possible pitfalls — before companies invest millions to implement them.
This unique collaboration, the largest of its kind in Canada, has earned the prestigious Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Synergy Award for Innovation (Two or More Companies) for the Industrial Consortium in Petroleum Reservoir Simulation. This award recognizes all of Chen's research and industry partners.
Visualizations deliver triple impact
“It’s a privilege to receive this recognition of all this research group has accomplished,” says Chen. “We’ve accomplished so much. We’ve been able to offer unique interdisciplinary training for our students, work on real problems facing industry, and develop breakthrough research that has helped reduce the environmental impact of oil extraction while lowering the costs for industry.”
So far, the consortium’s work has led to concrete improvements to oil recovery mechanisms, created new oil recovery technologies and advanced oil reservoir simulators to a new generation. Industrial partners include Brion Energy Corporation, Computer Modelling Group Ltd., Devon, Foundation CMG, IBM, Nexen Energy ULC and Suncor Energy.
One of the main innovations developed by the consortium of more than 100 researchers, industry partners, students and postdoctoral scholars, is a virtual reality interface allowing companies to reduce time on field-testing and focus on implementing better practices that reduce environmental impact. The technology allows engineers to build computer simulations of reservoir layers and drilling sites, and users interact with them in real time. Powerful modeling tools assess issues with oil composition, temperature, water usage and geomechanics, adjusting and adapting simulations until they find an optimal way of operating.
More than 100 researchers, industry partners, students and postdocs
The group has also filed 15 international patents, published 16 books and 600 research articles, including some in top international journals like Nature and the The Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences and Energy. They have also delivered 350 research presentations while training 35 Masters of Science graduates, 31 PhD graduates and 22 postdoctoral scholars.
“We are proud to join NSERC in recognizing the work of Dr. Chen and his partners, for their improvements to Canada’s oilsands extraction practices,” notes Ed McCauley, vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary. “We look forward to their ongoing partnership that will continue to strengthen Canada’s leadership in energy innovation.”
Chen, who also directs the Global Research Initiative for Unconventional Oil and Gas: The Beijing Site, University of Calgary and the Frank and Sarah Meyer Foundation CMG – Collaboration Centre at the University of Calgary, holds the NSERC/Foundation Computer Modelling Group Industrial Research Chair in Reservoir Simulation and the Alberta Innovates Technology Futures Industry Chair in Reservoir Modeling.
Partnership also provides a rich environment for teaching and learning
“Dr. Chen’s leadership in his field, and his commitment to understand industry’s technical challenges has resulted in this exemplary university-industry partnership that is also providing a rich environment for training students who will continue to lead energy innovations in the years to come,” says Bill Rosehart, dean of the Schulich School of Engineering.
“We wanted to develop some better simulation techniques for some of the advanced recovery processes that we’d been working on in the company,” says Tom Harding, Corporate Technology Senior Advisor at Nexen Energy. “The expertise that Dr. Chen and his students have, was exactly what we needed to progress our projects.”
Chen and many of his colleagues from industry travelled to Ottawa to receive the NSERC Award for Innovation in a ceremony attended by Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill on Feb. 7. Ed McCauley and Bill Rosehart also made the trip to celebrate this national recognition for the University of Calgary.
Located in the heart of Canada’s energy sector, the University of Calgary has built a reputation as a global leader in energy research and innovation. With a focus on our low-carbon future, diverse teams are also assessing the effects of energy-related processes while harnessing unconventional hydrocarbon resources through the Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow research strategy.