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Maybe it isn't the typical tale of success in the Canadian oil and gas industry.

It doesn't begin with an oil find akin to the Turner Valley discovery that set the Alberta oil industry in motion, but starts with a small group of professors and graduate students at the University of Alberta searching for a level of computing power that was both necessary to their research and beyond their budget.

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Photograph by: PEDRO VACA, A RESERVOIR ENGINEER WITH ACCELEWARE, IS RESEARCHING RADIO FREQUENCY HEATING OF HEAVY OILS. THE TECHNOLOGY COULD DRASTICALLY CHANGE HOW OIL PRODUCERS PURSUE RESOURCES IN THE OIL SANDS AND CARBONATE FORMATIONS OF NORTHERN ALBERTA.

"And they stepped outside the university and founded a company," said Robert Miller, chief marketing and sales officer with Acceleware, the technology company that began with that research team and their need for a better computer in 2004.

The focus of the venture was "high-performance computing" utilizing the latest technologies, particularly graphics processing units, or GPUs.

"The real core of it was gaming," Miller said of the development of the GPU business.

"What's inside of a GPU is essentially a very powerful computing board that is not a CPU (central processing unit)," he continued. "It doesn't do everything. It doesn't do your email and that kind of stuff. But in terms of just a number-crunching-type board, it's incredibly powerful, and it has several thousand processing cores just on a board that you can stick inside your desktop computer. And so by using that technology, it allows you to get a tremendous amount of number-crunching computer power in a very small footprint."

Acceleware's applications of GPU and electromagnetic technologies quickly thrust them into the oil and gas industry. "Oil and gas is our main market," said Miller.

Acceleware offers two key products to the energy sector, the first being the ability to process seismic information using Reverse Time Migration, or RTM.

"It's a migration algorithm that's been around for a while, but it was so computer-intensive that for the last several years it's only been used by the biggest of big companies that had tens of thousands of computing cores available to them to process seismic data using the RTM method," he continued.

RTM is an extremely accurate method of producing images of the subsurface geology, which makes it a valuable tool for oil producers hoping to extract hydrocarbon resources from that subsurface.

"We've been able to start to expand the marketplace for RTM," said Miller, adding that the use of GPUs is making that possible.

"Smaller companies can use it," he continued. "Larger companies are now migrating to the GPUs as well, because it's just such a powerful computer technology."

Their customers in that space are the seismic service providers that actually process the data and produce images of the subsurface geology.

"The second market is the electromagnetic," said Miller.

It isn't an area where Acceleware exclusively works with the oil and gas industry. "Anything that deals with antennas ... are big markets for us," said Miller.

Chief among those markets is the cell phone business.

"Every cell phone manufacturer in the world is currently or has previously used Acceleware technology to help design their antennas," he added.

The company has been sharpening its focus on the oil and gas industry in recent years, partly because of changes in the cell phone marketplace.

"A lot of the traditional space that we were in just as pure antenna design," Miller explained. "We kind of sold to almost everyone in that marketplace."

A cell phone manufacturer such as Samsung - an Acceleware customer - used to offer as many as 30 different phone models, but only have one or two models at this point.

The need for Acceleware's electromagnetic technologies has diminished. "That market is only so big," said Miller. "Oil and gas, even though it's a very different customer, the technologies are very similar."

Acceleware is just starting to push that technology in a bold new direction that could mean big changes in how the industry produces its oil.

It is an idea known as RF heating, and it is a method of producing heavy oil such as Alberta oil sands bitumen that is so viscous - it typically has the consistency of molasses - that it doesn't flow easily without heat, which is usually created by burning natural gas to generate steam that is pumped into the reservoir.

"This is radio frequency heating," said Miller. "And this is the idea of designing antennas, putting antennas in the ground, to heat heavy oils, as opposed to using conventional steam technology."

The idea began with a company in the United States that tried the technology in the 1990s without much success. "They ended up just kind of melting the equipment," said Miller.

The problem was that they weren't able to run a simulation, and the consequence was design flaws in their antenna.

"The challenge here is I need to put a lot of power into the formation, but I need to disperse that power away from the antenna, get it out as far as I can," Miller continued. "And we've been able to - at least in theory at this point - design antennas with special features in them that will propagate that energy farther out and away from the antenna. And we've done that all through simulation, through using the computing power and the software we've created."

When Acceleware was contacted by the oil producer interested in trying the technology again, their first task was to determine why their previous attempt had failed.

"And so we went back and actually did a post-mortem on this project, [and] discovered really what was wrong with the design," said Miller. The partners began moving forward with the new effort at that point.

"We've been doing research now for about two and a half years. And our first antenna - test antenna - is going to go into the ground later this year. In the fall of this year," said Miller.

RF Heating could be used in ordinary oil sands operations, but there are a few specific situations where it could be most beneficial.

"They have some heavy oil reserves that for a variety of reasons can't be produced with steam," Miller said of the oil company working with Acceleware on the project.

"It's kind of shallow and it doesn't have a real good cap structure," he explained. "So, whenever they've tried to put steam into the formation in the past, it just broke through and actually came up to the surface. There was no way of really containing the steam inside the formation.

"It's a stranded reserve."

That company isn't alone in that predicament.

Additionally, RF Heating could prove to be the best way to develop resources in carbonate formations found in northern Alberta.

"These are very heterogeneous-type reservoir structures where they're full of cracks and holes and tunnels," said Miller. "Steam works in things like the oil sands where you have a very uniform-type formation, but if you have a formation where it's complex - think about if you put steam in there and it finds one crack. Well, it's all going to go up that area. It's not going to develop a steam chamber.

"So, the carbonate reserves are ... particularly interesting, because they don't really have a great solution to produce in those areas right now."

Acceleware is also anticipating huge benefits in terms of efficiency, as well as reducing the environmental footprint of the oil industry.

"Our studies have shown so far that this technology will use less energy than traditional steam technologies," said Miller. "And it certainly is much less infrastructure. I don't have to build a steam plant. I basically run electricity to the well site and there is an RF generator on the surface. And that generates the RF signal that you put underground."

Acceleware expects that method will require about 30 per cent less energy than the traditional practices of using steam. There are advantages in other areas as well.

"You don't use any external water," Miller explained. "You use the water that's in place. That's really what's heating. As the radio waves propagate into the formation, they're heating up the water molecules. And that's providing the energy.

"And RF has a very great characteristic that once it heats the water molecules to a certain point, then it moves on, it keeps migrating outwards. So, you don't have to add any water. You just use the water that's in place."

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