Aug. 19, 2021

Schulich professors named Society of Petroleum Engineers award winners

Prestigious recognition shows UCalgary at the forefront of clean energy future
Steven Bryant (left) and Roberto Aguilera have been named 2021 Society of Petroleum Engineers award winners. Graphic by Nicole Laursen

“Surprise” and “validation” are two of the first words that come to mind for a pair of Schulich School of Engineering professors who were recently named winners of international awards.

Dr. Roberto Aguilera and Dr. Steven Bryant will be recognized with awards from the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in Dubai in September.

Aguilera is the winner of the SPE Reservoir Description and Dynamics Award while Bryant earned the SPE Sustainability and Stewardship in the Oil and Gas Industry Award.

“These are well-deserved awards that clearly show Roberto and Steven to be globally recognized leaders in their respective areas,” said Dr. Arin Sen, head of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “Having two of these highly competitive, international awards land in our department further exemplifies the excellence of our faculty members, and the outstanding, impactful work that they are doing at the University of Calgary.”

Balancing economy and environment

Aguilera admits it was a total surprise when he found out in February that he was a nominee.

“Then, when I received the letter from the president of SPE, Dr. Thomas Blasingame, indicating that I had been chosen as the 2021 recipient of the award, my surprise grew even more,” he said. “This award is given only once per year from candidates all over the world.”

In his work, Aguilera has developed several petrophysics and reservoir engineering techniques for evaluation of naturally-fractured and unconventional reservoirs that are widely used in the oil and gas industry around the globe.

“The objective of the work we do with my students and other colleagues is to increase oil and gas production rates from tight, shale and naturally fractured reservoirs, and ultimate recoveries of these substances, while keeping a close eye on economics and externalities,” he said.

Given the ongoing debate around the petroleum industry in Alberta, Aguilera feels this is an important area of development.

“Our research is inspired by Seymour Schulich, benefactor of the Schulich School of Engineering, who in a 2019 interview said if we don’t take advantage of the legacy this country has been given, as the third-largest reserve of oil and gas in the world, and build schools, hospitals and infrastructure – if we don’t do that, we’re going to lose out,” he stated.

Diversification relies on industry’s help

The conversation about the oil and gas sector in Alberta regularly turns to diversification. Bryant believes industry will need to be at the forefront of any change.

“Winning the award gave me a sense of validation,” he said. “My argument for nearly 20 years has been that the oil and gas industry has the tools to be a big part of the CO2 solution – even though the popularity of the fuels that industry produces has contributed to the problem.”

Similarly, he says it’s possible to develop new processes that reduce or even eliminate other environmental impacts of producing and using oil and gas.

“One of them has been finding solutions to the technical challenges that can arise when we do carbon capture and storage at the scale needed to mitigate climate change,” Bryant continued. “We need to maintain high rates of storage for long periods of time, ensure secure storage, and make efficient use of geological storage space.”

Bryant has also been looking into reducing costs and speeding up the scale of CO2 removal from the air during conventional energy production.

“Another theme we’re looking at is advances in materials science, including nanoparticles, ionic liquids and the microbiome,” he added. “They could help reduce the environmental impact of producing Canada’s largest hydrocarbon resource: the oil sands.”

A cleaner energy future

Both professors say the awards show the world that leading-edge research for a cleaner energy future is happening at the University of Calgary.

“Some of the research being conducted here will help produce oil and gas economically and safely for several decades,” Aguilera said.

He expects the move away from fossil fuels will take time, which makes it that much more important in the meantime to improve production rates and recoveries in ways that are clean and safe for the environment and society.

Bryant adds the oil and gas sector, along with the rest of the energy world, has changed dramatically in the last few years and will continue to do so.

 “A viable path to net-zero emissions will require both social and technological innovation in a way we haven’t seen before and with an urgency that is tangible,” he said. “I am excited about helping advance initiatives at UCalgary that will produce those innovations and, more importantly, produce graduates with an innovation mindset, gained from hands-on experience.”