Feb. 16, 2023

For the oil and gas industry, the future is quantum

Canadian Natural explores quantum solutions, participating in UCalgary’s partnered Quantum City Challenge
Shahpoor Moradi directs the Professional Master in Quantum Computing program in the Faculty of Science at UCalgary.
Shahpoor Moradi directs the Professional Master in Quantum Computing program in the Faculty of Science at UCalgary. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The quandary of Canada’s oil and gas industry, as this pillar of our economy faces policies aimed at radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is a dilemma of great consequence for us all. Could it be that burgeoning quantum technology holds a crucial key to the industry’s future? 

Dr. Shahpoor Moradi, PhD, director of the Professional Master in Quantum Computing program at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Science, is a big believer in this potential. “It’s going to change everything,” he says. 

Moradi makes this assertion not just as a quantum scientist, but also as someone who’s done his time in the oil and gas trenches, recently spending two years researching ways to harness the power of quantum computers for the purpose of seismic imaging. 

“Seismic imaging in oil and gas exploration is like taking a giant X-ray of the subsurface,” Moradi explains. “We send waves of energy underground and these waves bounce back, allowing us to create an image of the subsurface, which helps us locate oil and gas deposits.” 

The process involves incredibly complex mathematical equations which are often a challenge for traditional computers, says Moradi. Quantum computers, on the other hand, harness quantum mechanics and process information in a way that traditional computers cannot. As such, they can solve these problems with exceptional speed and efficiency due to their ability to perform parallel computations. 

Oil and gas company Canadian Natural sees the value in embracing quantum research. That’s why it’s one of two Alberta energy leaders (the other is ATCO) taking part in the Quantum City Challenge, which poses three problems faced by the energy industry, inviting quantum experts from around the world to propose solutions using quantum technology. 

Quantum City is a hub established in partnership with UCalgary, the Government of Alberta, and international IT and consulting company Mphasis, dedicated to building the province’s quantum ecosystem and creating pathways for the widespread adoption of quantum technologies. 

Shahpoor Moradi

Shahpoor Moradi

“The potential of quantum technologies for energy companies could be nothing short of transformational,” says Megan Lee, managing director of Quantum City. “Quantum computing has the potential to offer unprecedented computational power, revolutionizing grid operations and resource exploration. Embracing quantum computing can drive innovation and efficiency, and address complex challenges across sectors, including energy.”

Among the three Quantum City Challenges is one posed by Canadian Natural on the difficulties created by bitumen viscosity. 

As Alberta exports its heavy crude oil, called bitumen, throughout Canada and into the United States via pipeline, viscosity is a recurring obstruction. Bitumen will often become viscous, sticky, and thick, a condition which interferes with the oil’s flow through the pipelines, creating huge and costly setbacks in operations. 

The current solution for this problem has been to mix bitumen with a diluent, typically natural gas condensate, which reduces the viscosity of the crude oil. However, the use of condensate comes at great cost, and it takes up pipeline capacity, which increases energy requirements to move this fluid through the pipeline network. Therefore, different solvents with viscosity-reducing molecules are desired.  

“There are many materials that can blend with bitumen to reduce viscosity, but it’s crucial to understand how the bitumen interacts with these diluent molecules,” says Moradi. “Quantum computers, with their exceptional parallel processing capabilities, have the potential to efficiently model these interactions in a way that is not possible for classical computers due to the chemical complexity. This modelling can lead to a better understanding of the blending process, helping us to optimize the chemical combination of bitumen and these diluent molecules.” 

Advanced quantum computing also shows great potential for bettering carbon capture technology, says Moradi, which reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions thereby lessening the oil and gas industry’s environmental impact. 

“As with modelling the interactions between bitumen and diluent molecules, quantum computers can also model how complex molecules interact with carbon dioxide,” says Moradi. “This can help us design new nanomaterials for more efficient and effective carbon capture.” 

Moradi emphasizes that, currently, the application of quantum computations remains largely unexplored within the oil and gas industry. But he believes as the technology is embraced and larger-scale quantum computers are brought in to play, the industry will be transformed. 

“This technology will be a game changer.” 

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