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University Acquires New Tools to Help Unlock Earth's Oil and Gas Mysteries

Equipment unique to the University of Calgary gives researchers insight into industry and academic challenges.

by Leanne Yohemas, University of Calgary News Office
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Bernard Guest, associate professor in the Department of Geoscience, stands next to new tools that will help researchers understand the history of Canadian rocks and gain valuable insight as to where oil may be deposited in our province and around the world.Photo credit: Riley Brandt, University of CalgaryThe University of Calgary has new tools to help researchers understand the history of Canadian rocks and gain valuable insights into when and how oil and gas was generated in the province of Alberta and around the world. This constellation of new instruments is the first of its kind in Canada, unique in North America and has other applications beyond the oil and gas sectors.

“One example of a basic question we can help answer is: When was oil generated?” says Bernard Guest, an assistant professor of geoscience in the Faculty of Science. “Using this cutting-edge equipment, we can track the temperature history of oil-bearing formations to help determine the timing of oil generation, which, in turn, allows us to look at other geological formations to try and determine where similar deposits may be located.”

Previously, researchers had to use facilities at universities in the United States (University of Arizona and University of Texas) to dig up such information. Now, this new infrastructure, funded by an investment of more than $1 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education, will draw researchers and students from around the globe to conduct both applied and pure research in Alberta.

Innovation in energy, minerals and environmental sectors

“This is a leap forward for Canadian geoscience and the University of Calgary,” says Guest. “Dating  oil generation and biodegredation is one thing but having this new capability will help advance research on a number of fronts.”  

New innovations will include:

  • Evaluating the long-term stability of nuclear facility sites; 
  • Solving problems associated with CO2 storage by assessing the geochemical evolution of a reservoir after CO2 is injected;
  • Geothermal site characterization;
  • Predicting rock properties for fracking operations;
  • Allowing researchers to better understand the timing and genesis of mineral deposits like diamond-bearing kimberlite pipes, and banded iron deposits;
  • Direct dating of meteorites and studying the long-term evolution of impact craters.

Constellation of instruments

The constellation of state-of-the-art instruments that make up the new Centre for Pure and Applied Thermochronology (CPAT) – two mass spectrometers, an ultra high-resolution interferometer and a specially designed laser ablation instrument – will analyze radioisotopes to determine the age and thermal histories of individual sediment grains. This will help researchers understand the specific processes that generate oilsand deposits as well as create new energy exploration strategies for unconventional reserves.

The University of Calgary facility will foster innovative academic collaboration with other Canadian universities, help industry solve problems related to energy, minerals and the environment and provide training opportunities for the next generation of industrial geoscientists. It will also help to advance the university’s Energy Research Strategy: Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow by cutting across its themes: discover new resources, extract with minimal environmental impact, export to markets and plan for the future.

“This is the first facility of this kind targeted at industrial research questions relating to energy and the environment,” says Guest. “It takes the University of Calgary a step closer to building a global hub for energy innovation.”