Unconventional approach to unconventional oil

The Challenge:

Unconventional oil such as heavy-oil and bitumen found in Alberta’s oilsands is more difficult to coax from the ground because it has a thick consistency—and sometimes even forms rock. Current methods used to pump this oil from the ground involves injecting steam or solvents into the ground, causing the heavy oil to flow more freely and making it easier to bring it to the surface. Efficiencies in these techniques can be discovered through research and experimentation.

The Approach:

Tayfun Babadagli and his team are developing new recovery techniques, running experiments using core samples of bitumen provided by industry partners. The steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) method employed by industry today can be “a very difficult technology” says Babadagli. Heat (in the form of steam or other means like air or electrical heating) or solvents are used to get heavy oils to flow more freely.

“Our job is to optimize these techniques, to minimize the costs and maximize recovery,” says Babadagli, who holds the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Unconventional Oil Recovery. “You want to find ways to use the least amount of steam or the least amount of solvents.”

The team has patented a recovery technique that alternates the use of steam and solvents to make bitumen more easily accessible. Variables, such as the temperatures and length of time spent heating the oil, and the strength of a solvent can be experimented with. “Injection times and waiting times and the strength of the solvent are all critical elements. Sometimes you might be heating for two weeks but maybe one week is enough.”


By finding efficiencies in ways to extract unconventional oil, Babadagli and his team will also reduce the environmental impact oil companies have, reduce the costs of accessing the oil and maximize the amount of oil recovered.

Tayfun Babadagli

Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Unconventional Oil Recovery