Research & development

Research and development

Our priority is to supply reliable and affordable oil and gas energy in a way that benefits our customers. At the same time, we have a duty to do so in a safe and environmentally responsible way. That’s why it’s essential to research new and innovative ways to develop hydrocarbons more efficiently and with minimal environmental impact.

We look to technology to overcome challenges inherent in the energy industry. We are one of a select number of oil and gas companies in Canada with dedicated research facilities. Scientists at our Calgary and Sarnia facilities conduct their own research as well as partner with academic experts and scientists at ExxonMobil.

Our efforts are focused on:

  • piloting new recovery technologies
  • supporting oil sands research
  • developing cleaner products
  • advancing environmental technologies
  • funding projects at universities

We balance our investments between technology extensions, which can be rapidly deployed to our existing operations, and breakthrough research that could have a significant and lasting impact on the company and society.

Since 2005, we have invested more than $380 million in research, and we remain among the top companies in Canada in terms of total dollars invested in research and technology.

Here are some examples of how our relentless pursuit of research and technology is continuing to reduce the environmental impacts of development.

  • We piloted a steam-flooding technology to improve resource recovery in mature portions of the field at Cold Lake. Results confirmed that the technology can improve resource recovery and reduce GHG emission intensity by up to 30 percent. We are evaluating expanding use of the technology to other parts of the Cold Lake operation.
  • We are developing a cyclic solvent process that injects solvent to reduce the viscosity of bitumen deposits and facilitate economic recovery. By avoiding the use of steam to mobilize the deposits, the process improves energy efficiency. In 2009, we completed a pilot project injecting solvent in three wells.
  • Less developed today, but receiving a key focus in our R&D pipeline, is a game-changing technology that could allow us to separate bitumen from mined oil sands without the addition of water. This non-aqueous bitumen extraction technology could lead to a substantially smaller tailings pond footprint.
  • We continue to develop a new solvent technology called LASER (liquid addition to steam to enhance recovery). LASER involves adding a small amount of light hydrocarbon solvent, or diluent, to the steam that is injected into the ground to recover heavy oil. By adding the diluent, the technology enables more resource to be recovered from mature wells for the same amount of steam injected, resulting in environmental and economic benefits. In 2009, we completed solvent and steam injection at 10 well pads, and bitumen production has begun. While still in the early stages, production is meeting expectations.

We are the founding sponsor of the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI) at the University of Alberta. The aim of this unique Canadian centre of excellence is to conduct breakthrough research that reduces the use of water and energy and decreases the footprint of oil sands development. The COSI research portfolio continues to grow and now engages over 100 researchers from six Canadian universities working on more than 30 research projects in four key program areas aimed at advancing responsible development of Alberta’s oil sands and improved environmental performance. Since 2005, we have contributed $20 million and more than $1 million of in-kind support to COSI.

We also continue to be one of several oil sands operators funding leading-edge research conducted by the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development (CONRAD). In 2009, we contributed $550,000 to a CONRAD program aimed at remediation and reclamation of oil sands mining sites. Since 2006, we have contributed $1.3 million to support research conducted under CONRAD.

Developing cleaner products
Through our Sarnia research centre, we are developing new and improved products and processes. These include testing biofuels to confirm they will meet the rigours of the Canadian climate and improving hydroprocessing technologies to maximize on-road ultra-low sulphur diesel production. The centre also recently assumed the role of advanced technical support lab for the global ExxonMobil and affiliates’ lubricants and specialties business.

Advancing environmental technologies
Through our research facilities and investments, we support the development of new environmental and reclamation technologies.  Since 2003, our Calgary researchers have been part of an innovative project to manufacture topsoil. The technology involves mixing different natural ingredients to fabricate productive topsoil in several years, instead of hundreds of years. In 2009, we completed a successful trial of the technology at Olds College in Olds, Alberta. We are now evaluating opportunities for a larger demonstration project at a field site.

Learn more about Imperial’s research initiatives by reading our most recent Corporate Citizenship Report.

University research funding
We also support the research efforts of others through our University Research Awards program. This program provides funding for research projects carried out by faculty members and their students in areas of interest – including the environment – to our businesses.