anada is fortunate to have one of the largest deposits of oil sands in the world. The issue has always been how to get the oil out of the ground and turn it into a useable source of energy in the most efficient and environmentally responsible manner.

The current method called SAGD (steam assisted gravity drainage) works, but it requires a great deal of water and energy. A newer, proven homegrown technology is now available that promises to be a real game changer.

Nsolv is a Calgary-based clean tech company that has developed a better option for oil extraction. Its patented process uses warm solvent (propane or butane) vapour — similar to what fuels a barbecue — to extract bitumen, or heavy oil, while leaving contaminants behind.

The result is a cleaner product that can flow through pipelines more easily, reducing the need to add diluents — substances needed to turn something that is the consistency of peanut butter into something less viscous like maple syrup.

As Joe Kuhach, CEO of Nsolv, explains: “This technology transforms the way we pull heavy oil out of the ground with a process that is both economical and environmentally sustainable. And there are all kinds of benefits that stem from that.”

Those benefits are significant. The Nsolv process does not use water, unlike SAGD, and it generates just one-quarter of its greenhouse gas emissions. And there are large-scale economic advantages.

“More jobs would be offered because of these benefits,” says Kuhach. “We would be less effected by oil price volatility and ultimately have greater prosperity for Canadians across the country.”

Nsolv technology has been successfully used at a pilot plant on a Suncor Energy site since 2014 where over 100,000 barrels have been produced. The company is in the final stages of optimizing plant performance as it readies the technology for commercial implementation. 

It’s now a question of getting a commercial plant built. Companies are reluctant to be first adopters, because embracing new technology involves significant capital expenditure and other risks, even when the technology has proven long-term environmental and economical advantages.

Waiting comes with a price, according to Kuhach. “The sooner we’re able to actually deploy  technology like Nsolv’s, the more benefits we’re able to reap. As time marches forward, and we continue to do things the old way, we lose an opportunity to do things in a cleaner fashion — in more economically and environmentally sustainable ways.”

One key catalyst for change is the government. “It can play a leadership role in helping unlock technologies like Nsolv,” he adds. “These are the solutions they are looking for. Let’s make it happen.”