Dr. Ian Gates

2016 Oil Sands,  Winner

Bringing Light to Heavy Oil Recovery

“I wanted to be part of the dream of doing things better than yesterday."

Dr. Ian Gates says it is this dream that started him on his award-winning path, including the Achievement in Innovation Award from Innovate Calgary in 2012. Over the past 16 years, Gates has been a valued member of the oil and gas industry, producing groundbreaking research that has changed entire industry processes.

The majority of Gates’ work has focused on heavy oil recovery process design.This area has required major improvements to keep up with environmental expectations, largely due to the fact that heavy oil is much denser than conventional (light) oil, is time-consuming to harvest and often requires contaminants to refine it, all of which can have harsh environmental impacts.

Gates looks to improve the techniques that are used for heavy oil recovery in order to reduce its environmental and economic impacts.

“Right now there is about 20% more carbon produced per barrel of heavy oil than that of a conventional oil process,” says Gates. “So we’re working on making this process much more energy and carbon efficient, so that it will match and eventually surpass the emissions performance of conventional oil.”

Developing Techniques and Companies

One area of oil recovery where Gates has devoted much of his time is steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). This process uses steam pressure to reduce heavy oil viscosity, allowing it to drain out of the oil reservoir.

In an attempt to increase the efficiency of SAGD, Gates developed a system of declining pressure injection. This begins with high pressure injection that declines slowly as the oil recovery process progresses. This improvement has since been adopted by several oil companies which has greatly contributed to reduced operational costs in the recovery process.

More recently, Gates and his research team created a new shallow, low pressure oil sands recovery process. After initial evaluations, this process showed energy intensity levels half that of SAGD. A field test in December 2015 showed positive results and Gates is planning a larger field trial for the fall of 2016.

Gates is also making advances in the planning of oil recovery systems. He has developed software which looks at the energetics of the recovery process to determine which areas would benefit from improved efficiency. Gates also developed a company in 2006 called Gushor Inc. This spin-off was focused on optimizing production through the use of algorithms and procedures that determined the most effective placements of wells for oil recovery.

Teaching the Next Generation

In 2004, Gates joined the University of Calgary as a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “I always felt there was a big gap in training students with the proper skills so that they can grow and adapt to industry rapidly,” says Gates.

It appeared to Gates that a solution to this issue was to train students himself, and he soon fell in love with teaching. “As these students get older and more skilled, they develop a sense of excitement in their own careers, and I love seeing that,” explains Gates.

In the last 12 years, Gates has graduated 34 students, with the majority of them currently employed in the oil and gas industry.