The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Energy Innovation for Our Energy Future

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted March 6, 2013

Saudi Aramco President and CEO Khalid Al-Falih issued a number of challenges at IHS CERAWeek 2013, the energy consultancy’s mega-conference this week in Houston: innovate – to allow greater recovery of resources, greater efficiency and improved environmental performance. His call dovetailed with a conference agenda stocked with presentations and discussions of energy innovation – which Al-Falih said is one of the keys to the oil and natural gas industry moving into the energy future alongside growing world demand:

“We will significantly bolster (industry) resilience by continuing to create truly transforming and game-changing technologies.”

A glimpse was offered by a number of companies developing technologies that make energy development better and more efficient. Four, for example:

Solar Enhanced Oil Recovery

GlassPoint designs, builds and installs solar-powered steam generators for enhanced oil recovery. President and CEO Rod MacGregor said extracting heavy oil amounts to changing the consistency of the crude from molasses to water by raising its temperature – except that the oil isn’t conveniently found in a beaker for heating. In a field this might involve heating up a cubic mile of rock, typically by burning natural gas to generate steam. As much as 20 percent of the cost of a barrel of oil is devoted to the energy needed to draw it out.

GlassPoint’s “Enclosed Trough” solar field uses curved aluminum mirrors sealed inside an agricultural greenhouse. The mirrors track the sun, focusing sunlight on a stationary boiler tube containing water. The sun boils the water to produce high-pressure steam. The absence of solar panels and other feature help keep costs below those of other designs, the company says. Video:

MacGregor: “If you can make it cheaper to extract the oil, you can extract more of it.”

Single-Column Isomerization

RRT Global CEO Doug Harris said his Russia-based company is pioneering a system for processing hydrocarbons (isomerization), specifically for the production of clean fuels, that’s less expensive than conventional isomerization. Basically, RRT Global’s system combines four stages of the traditional process into one. A diagram from their website:


“What that means for our clients is that our capital costs, as compared to conventional isomerization,are about a third. Our energy costs … are about a fifth of traditional isomerization. Our technology – we have proved it in a lab, we have proved it in a pilot plant. We are currently in three commercial operations in various stages of construction in Russia. We think we have an exciting technology that is differential, that can really have an impact on clean fuels.”

Enhanced Data Gathering

ARKeX specializes in non-seismic data gathering for oil and natural gas companies. CEO John Siegfried said his company’s high-resolution data collection and interpretation, both airborne and in marine environments, accelerates the typical five-year exploration timeline. The process involves full tensor gravity gradiometry, which maps density variations in rock formations by measuring the earth’s gravitational field. The data produced then can help focus expensive seismic operations. Siegfried:

“Gradiometry is able to identify prospects quite accurately, and then with some 2-D seismic you can determine depth and then you can do exploration. … We can shave a lot of time off the exploration cycle.”

According to the company’s website, it is developing its own gravity gradiometer, the EGG (Exploration Gravity Gradiometer), which it says will be significantly more sensitive than current instruments:

Cellulosic Transformation

Agrivida is developing processes using enzyme activation to produce renewable chemicals, fuels and bioproducts from non-food cellulosic biomass. These include corn stover and switchgrass, which are converted into fermentable sugars used to produce fuels and chemicals. Agrivida CEO Mark Wong said his company uses enzymes to degrade plant cell walls, resulting in cost savings. Wong:

“Our technology allows us to put those enzymes in a dormant form and activate the enzymes on command. The commands can be ph, they can be dilution, they can be temperature. … We can harvest the plant material when the plant is fully grown, and then we can switch on the enzymes with temperature and convert those long-chain cellulose molecules to sugars.”

Stay tuned. More energy innovation to come.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.