If you could peer inside the two-metre-long green tube at the University of Calgary, you would see something glowing like an ember. It is oil, mixed with water and sand, and it is on fire-a slow burn fed by a constant injection of air. The temperature inside is between 500 and 600 C, and can leap to double that level.
If you were feeling poetic, you might describe it as a microcosm of hell. Or, if you were Gordon Moore, the 66-year-old researcher who has devoted most of his adult life to understanding the process, you might describe it as a vision of the future.
That future would see underground fires cauterizing at least some of the dirt from the image of Canada's oil sands-and ushering in more profits, too. The technology, it's true, has been long a-borning and yet is still far from reaching critical mass. But as governments move to penalize emissions and environmental groups castigate the oil sands as a leading global climate villain, the experts in these underground fires hope they are also igniting a new beginning for the oil sands. Counterintuitive as it seems, burning the oil sands could be the cleanest option Fort McMurray has.
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The path to the future foreseen by Moore starts at his cavernous, three-storey lab, with its green tube-a crude and colourful length of steel that looks like a jet engine designed by kindergarten students. The inside is a carefully calibrated analogue of the oil sands, the enormous, lucrative deposit of bitumen beneath the soils of northeastern Alberta. Fed by the air, the fire-or, as the scientists call it, the combustion front-slowly moves down the tube, its progress revealed by temperature sensors.
The result requires no sensors to detect. The naked eye can see the oil flowing. The fire consumes a small fraction of it, usually about 10 per cent. The resulting heat and pressure liberate the bulk of the crude from the sand-without using chemicals or water, and with no ugly open pit. The only ingredient is garden-variety air, pumped into the oil sands at high pressure.
This small environmental footprint makes combustion a potentially radical departure from current oil sands methods, which include unsightly open-pit mining and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). The latter process uses huge quantities of natural gas to boil water into steam, which is then injected underground, where it heats the oil and causes it to melt away from the sand.
However, combustion has its own issues. Yes, it can liberate oil underground. But the problem of bringing that oil to the surface safely and successfully is the nut that has to be cracked before combustion can go mainstream.
Still, enough global industry players have developed an interest in the technology that Moore's lab has a steady stream of test jobs. A single combustion test costs $100,000, and in 36 years of work, Moore and his lab of 35 staff and grad students have run nearly 400 of them, paid for by $2-million in annual funding from companies around the world. When Moore started, he believed this technology-which is variously called in situ combustion, fire-flooding or air injection-could unlock the oil sands. The decades have not changed his mind. If anything, they have reinforced his conviction, even if other researchers marvel at his doggedness. "My friends distrust my mental capabilities for doing it. But it's a tremendous research area," he says. "It's a process that has huge potential."
Combustion was first patented as a technique for extracting oil in 1923 by a pair of California scientists. The first tentative attempt to make it work in the field took place in the Soviet Union a decade later; it did not return to North America until the 1950s, where some favourable tests stoked hopes.
But its subsequent history has been largely disappointing. Though major energy companies in the United States and Canada tried out combustion and an Alberta government-funded oil sands test program was mounted, most tests were eventually abandoned.