Casper native Mark Trautman is part of a team aiming to revolutionize oil extraction.
A senior scientist for Harris Corporation, a Florida-based international company specializing in communications and information technology, Trautman is participating in a project to extract precious bitumen — a hydrocarbon mixture in oil sands — without using water.
No steam. No liquid water. Just electromagnetic waves.
That could be significant for development of tar sands. It’s a cheaper method than what is used now, and would save on water. Critics dislike tapping the sands, saying it requires huge amounts of energy and water, increases greenhouse gas emissions and threatens rivers and forests.
The technique broadcasts electromagnetic waves into the sands. The waves heat water molecules surrounding the bitumen. Crews then inject solvents into the formation. The process reduces the resource’s viscosity, allowing it to be more easily extracted.
Widely-used techniques like fuel-assisted gravity drainage — in which steam is injected into the sands to free up bitumen — rely heavily on water. Trautman said the extraction process he is working on — Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating, or ESEIEH — could remedy that need, which can be a problem.
“You no longer need any water,” he said. “It’s probably about half the cost” of fuel-assisted gravity drainage.
For Trautman, it’s been a long road to the Canadian North.
He attended schools in Casper for most of his academic career, but moved to Tucson, Ariz., as a high school junior. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona and finished his doctorate at Georgia Tech.
An expert in heat transfer and fluid mechanics, Trautman took a job with Intel after school, where he worked on technology used to cool computer processors.
But Trautman wanted to try something that brought a little more variety to the table. He took a position with Harris, a company whose work runs the gamut from space reflectors to electro-optics, in 2006.
About two years later, Trautman got a call from a senior professor with an idea: oil extraction without water. He’s been working on it ever since.
“It’s probably one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever worked on,” Trautman said. “It’s really allowed me to go in and study a whole new discipline. It’s fascinating what they’re doing.”
Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating, or “easy” for short, is the result of about four years of work by Harris scientists in conjunction with Laricina, Nexen Inc. and Suncor Energy, all Canadian oil and energy companies. The project has cost about $33 million, half of which was paid by the Alberta Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp.
Trautman’s role on the team is mostly based in numbers, working as a modeler and reservoir engineer.
The technology isn’t ready for the field, but it recently cleared a major hurdle — a 60-day test in early 2012 proved that the waves could actually heat oil sands at a Suncor project site in Alberta.
Trautman said the next stage in the process is conducting a project pilot, likely to also be somewhere in Canada. Crews will combine the electromagnetic technology with solvent injection and measure rates of return in order to determine the technique’s efficiency. The project could go online in 2013.