Researcher investigating cleaner oil sands upgrading techniques

Researcher investigating cleaner oil sands upgrading techniques Babatunde Olateju, a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta Department of Mechanical Engineering, is trying to find more environmentally friendly ways to upgrade bitumen.
Edmonton—We live in a province rich in fossil fuel resources and great profits can be made from them. However, the use of these fossil fuels comes at a significant great environmental cost. The greenhouse gas emissions footprint of Alberta’s oil sands industry is one of its most formidable challenges in the context of environmental stewardship.

Babatunde Olateju, a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of this year’s recipients of the $13,000 Sadler Graduate Scholarships in Mechanical Engineering, is researching ways to mitigate a specific, energy-intensive aspect of oil sands activities: hydrogen production. Huge amounts of hydrogen are consumed in the upgrading of bitumen to synthetic crude oil, and considerable energy is consumed simply to produce useable hydrogen. (The use of hydrogen as a feedstock in is expected to reach 3.1 million tonnes/year in the oil sands industry by 2023.)

Hydrogen is an abundant simple element and is a potential source of emissions-free fuel. However, hydrogen does not exist on its own; it is locked up in water, carbon (coal), and other elements. Most of the hydrogen used as a fuel in North America is extracted through a process known as steam methane reforming. This process results in considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Olateju is building computer models that consider both the technology and the costs of producing hydrogen through more environmentally friendly means.

His models consider two alternatives to the current methods of hydrogen production: one is the use of energy produced from renewable sources such as wind and hydro power and the other is finding ways to mitigate the effects of hydrogen production as it is currently produced (with natural gas and coal) through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or underground coal gasification. CCS is the geological storage (landfilling) of the carbon dioxide generated from the use of fossil fuels. CCS is still in the early stages of development. Underground coal gassification is a method of converting coal to gas (syngas) underground, and can be used in combination with CCS. Even if used without CCS, underground gasification results in a lower greenhouse gas footprint than traditional methods of coal combustion.

Olateju’s computer models assess large-scale, environmentally sustainable hydrogen production systems (and their costs) for the bitumen upgrading industry in Western Canada. This is data-intensive work; he uses data that is primarily sourced from refereed journals but also from government and industry. That said, in Western Canada, very little research has been done on producing hydrogen in environmentally sustainable yet economically feasible ways. Olateju says the work is time consuming and data intensive, yet it remains a stimulating endeavour, especially considering the insight that can be gained from the model results. The oil sands industry is expanding, and it’s imperative that we find ways to make its growth sustainable. There’s a need for environmental stewardship to balance the growth. Given the considerable amount of hydrogen used in the upgrading of bitumen, finding ways to produce hydrogen with lower or no greenhouse gas emissions will make a huge impact.

Olateju is seeing his papers published in high-impact, refereed journals and receiving academic awards. In addition to the Sadler Graduate Scholarship, he has received the Government of Alberta’s Graduate Citizenship Award. This is not surprising for the former co-president of the U of A’s Energy Club and, until December 2013, president of the U of A’s Nigerian Students’ Association.

Olateju is part of a research program led by Amit Kumar, who holds the Industrial Research Chair in Energy and Environmental Systems Engineering funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Cenovus Energy Inc., Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, and Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions.

Dave Hassan, Cenovus’s director of technology investments, in congratulating Babatunde Olateju on receiving the distinguished Sadler award, said: “We believe that it is imperative for society to understand how to make the best use of our energy and water resources. The research pursued by Olateju and his colleagues at the U of A is critical to developing this understanding and we look forward to learning more about his findings.”

Olateju says he feels “profound gratitude” toward the U of A and especially toward the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He also feels “a strong sense of fulfillment and motivation to sustain and deepen my intellectual pursuits, within and beyond the confines of academia. My journey to the University of Alberta was eventful, and not without its fair share of challenges and sacrifices.”

Olateju values his relationships with his colleagues in the sustainable energy research group and adds that his relationship with his supervisor, Amit Kumar, “has been the most influential factor for my intellectual growth and research success.”