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Iguanas and the oilsands: how biology can inform energy

Oilfield Technology,

GE’s ecomagination program, with technical support from other government and industry partners, have launched an open innovation challenge with up to US$ 1 million in cash and seed funding to improve the efficiency of oilsands extraction in Canada. Anybody in the world can participate.

The challenge targets two goals:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from generators producing steam used for extracting oil from the sands.
  • Finding new ways to capture waste heat at the other end of the process.

Scientist Brian Gregg believes that improving the efficiency of installed steam generators by 3 - 5% would have a tangible effect on the environment. Many oilsands operations use a process called steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). The method injects hot steam into an underground reservoir holding natural deposits of a thick, oil saturated sand. The steam softens the oil, allowing it to flow into wells where it is pumped back to the surface.

A central processing facility then seperates the produced oil and water, and recycles as much as 95% of the water for reuse in the process. For the recycling, the water must be cooled from 150 °C to 90°C. Gregg explains that this means that heat energy is lost but he believes that there must be some clever heat pump or other design that can harvest it. “That’s where we want the open innovation challenge to come in”, he said.

Gregg holds that the key to a solution might come from an unusual source – the marine iguana. The lizard, which is native to the Galapagos, cannot control its internal body temperature. It has therefore developed a system of vessels that quickly contract and expand in order to keep its temperature stable.

Honey bees are also very good at keeping temperature stable inside their hive, gathering together to generate heat and reducing it by fanning their wings.

“Many of the cleverest machines have a biological underpinning, and these two species are very good at maintaining and regulating their heat”, Gregg said. “We are casting our net very wide”.

Adapted from a report by Emma McAleavey.

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