Electrical engineer Michal Okoniewski had spent much of his early career studying how electromagnetic radiation from cell phones interacts with the human body. However, discovering the processing power of graphics cards led him to cofound his own company to commercialize it. Now, he is working with energy companies to explore how radio frequency waves can be used to extract oil without creating greenhouse gases.
Okoniewski’s interest in physics began when he was still just a student in elementary school. He explains he’s always enjoyed “the logic behind it and [its] ability to explain what’s happening in the world.”
That led him to study electrical engineering at the Gdańsk University of Technology in Poland.
“We had about 32 hours of math in the first year per week. So that was pretty hard. We would start classes at seven o’clock in the morning, and it took about every day to finish until nine in the evening. And we were just exhausted,” Okoniewski recalls.
But that hard work paid off – Okoniewski got his PhD and walked away with an expertise in computational electrodynamics and radio frequency. Afterward, he took a postdoctoral position at the University of Victoria.
He spent about six years there before transferring to the University of Calgary in 1998, where he now works as a professor in the Schulich School of Engineering.
While working in that department, Okoniewski developed software to simulate the interactions between electromagnetic radiation from cellphones and human tissue.
“We were modelling how the cell phone that you keep in your hands radiates or how it dissipates energy inside the hand and human head. How deep that radiation goes, how strong is this radiation, what are the terminal effects of this radiation, essentially electromagnetic dosimetry.”
However, to effectively conduct these complex simulations, a lot of computational power is needed.
“We were really trying all the supercomputers we could get our hands on, and they were still too slow for us,” Okoniewski explains.
That’s when Okoniewski and his team decided to use graphics processing units (GPUs) instead.
According to Okoniewski, GPUs are better known for providing the processing power for video games, creating the “very, very rich video on the screen.”
They discovered that GPUs have an enormous processing power, which can be harnessed for scientific computation – a utility that had not yet been popularized.
Creating a new company
Okoniewski and four of his colleagues teamed up to create Acceleware in 2004.
“We were way ahead of the game on this one, so we decided, ‘Okay, maybe that’s something that we really figure out.’ And we started the company making those [accelerated] computations utilizing GPU platforms.”
That’s when Okoniewski paid a visit to Nvidia, a California-based technology company famous for manufacturing GPUs.
Realizing their similar visions, Nvidia invested in Acceleware and happily gave their support – leading to a synergistic relationship between the two companies.
However, this initial investment could only get them so far. It became evident that Acceleware needed to start turning a profit if they were to survive beyond their first year.
“This forced us also into something which is probably very different from, or what would be happening if we were working in [a place like] Silicon Valley, and that is forcing us to actually get the product to market much faster than we wanted or should.”
Embracing this risk, Acceleware released a commercial computational platform accelerated by GPUs named AxFDTD. According to Acceleware’s website, “AxFDTD earned the distinction of being the first FDA-approved electromagnetic modelling software to measure radio frequency energy absorption by the body.”
Acceleware has support from a number of companies featured on the annual Fortune 500 list of the most profitable US industrial corporations. Blackberry, Samsung, LG, Nikon, Merck, Motorola, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are a few of the companies that continue to buy this product to develop everything from cell phones to MRIs.
Acceleware’s trajectory took a turn in 2010 when a major American-based oil company sought out Okoniewski’s expertise.
He wouldn’t disclose which company that was, however, Okoniewski does have several patents with Chevron in the United States.
This company asked Okoniewski to simulate what was going wrong with their experiments in using radio frequency-based heating for oil extraction.
“That led to a very productive, mutual collaboration, in which we’ve started not only to understand what went wrong there but how to fix that.”
Radio frequency-based heating provides an alternative to the way that the extraction process currently works.
Oil sits in the ground like a rock; it takes very high temperatures to loosen it up enough to the point where it’s extractable.
Most energy companies use traditional steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) for oil extraction. This method uses an external water source which is heated to create steam. The steam is then sent underground at a very high temperature and pressure, producing enough heat to extract the oil.
Alternatively, the company was attempting to use electromagnetic energy from radio frequency waves, which warm up the trapped water molecules in the earth – similar to how your microwave oven at home heats the water molecules in your food – to provide the amount of heat required for oil extraction.
Realizing this technology’s potential, Okoniewski and the rest of his team started to independently develop new ways to apply radio frequency energy to gather heavy oil using their GPU-accelerated software.
Okoniewski says the company’s competitors are mostly using traditional dipole antennas, which are common in the communications industry, to carry the electromagnetic energy.
“That approach was something that we [and others] tried years back and realized what are the shortcomings of this approach, and these are mainly that it doesn’t lend itself to very large industrial installations,” says Okoniewski.
Essentially, those limitations are due to the inability to “scale up to the necessary sizes that you need in commercial economic production, and would not lead to overall efficiency required to make it commercially viable.”
“We understood that, given the challenges underground, you have to start completely from scratch and redesign it, using a different concept altogether.”
This led Okoniewski and his team to turn to a lossy transmission line to carry the electromagnetic energy instead of dipole antennas.
With that, RF XL emerged. Okoniewski compares his RF XL technology to a microwave oven, “except, it’s a much, much bigger oven.” he explains, “And, if you will, it’s not radiating inside the oven but radiates out into the formation.”
Put simply, RF XL sends radio frequency waves underground to act as a “seek and destroy” method to target the already-existing water molecules within the earth, turning them into steam. As a result, the steam then transfers its heat to the rock and oil, allowing it to be sucked up into a pipe and brought to the surface.
This method of oil extraction has the potential to eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
“We’re all electrical, and so our system is as clean in terms of GHG as the source of electricity that you’re using.”
In fact, according to Acceleware’s zero greenhouse gas white paper, the technology is “expected to initially generate an approximate 25 per cent reduction in carbon emission compared to a natural gas-fired SAGD project.”
This number is expected to increase “to an estimated 50 per cent as the Alberta grid retires coal-fired power plants…by 2030.”
“Or 100 per cent if you use renewable sources,” Okoniewski adds.
In addition, according to Okoniewski, the steam used in the traditional SAGD technique is “not very efficient, and obviously, very CO2 intensive. And then as you take this steam down, you experience quite a bit of heat loss.”
As a result, with RF XL “you have a technology that is much greener, and at the same time is cheaper. You know, that doesn’t happen very often.”
To ensure everything they tested in the simulations would work, Acceleware conducted a field test five per cent of the size of what a full-scale pilot project would look like.
“The thing that was truly amazing was a lot of things had to go right, and a lot of them did go right. And it worked, and it was sort of an almost anti-climactic moment,” Okoniewski says.
“We also successfully delivered half a megawatt power into our test site. This was by far the highest power ever attempted. And you know, you’re gearing up for troubleshooting, gearing up for solving lots of problems that you expect will be happening, but all of a sudden, it just worked.”
However, Okoniewski cannot let out a sigh of relief quite yet. The next big step will be implementing a fully realized commercial-scale pilot project scheduled to happen in 2021 with two megawatts of radio frequency power.
“I’m super excited about the fact that we’ll be doing this relatively soon. But I’m a little bit worried that it will erase my skiing season,” Okoniewski jokes.
“This test is going to utilize our knowledge and experiences that we have gained, and our understanding of all the materials…if this test is successful, we’ll be ready to deploy this thing next year.”
Although Okoniewski isn’t sure if RF XL will replace existing SAGD installations, he believes it has all the potential to revolutionize future projects.
“So, I think there’s potential to change the industry in Alberta. It doesn’t take a day, or two, or a year, but it has the potential.”
Okoniewski also imagines the possibility of an even cleaner future.
“I think that oil is going to be used for quite some time, not just as an energy source but also the raw materials. But just imagine, and this is not what we’re working on immediately, but imagine that instead of producing oil, you could actually produce hydrogen in the future,” Okoniewski says.
“If you could find an interesting way of producing hydrogen in the future or, you know, in a way in which you don’t produce carbon on the surface, that leaves the carbon underground. That is a phenomenal future, and it will likely require technology like ours.”
Okoniewski predicts that, in addition to scaling up RF XL production, Acceleware will also be doing a lot of research into using hydrogen as renewable energy in the coming future. As for Okoniewski, he hopes to see himself spending more time in the mountains and less time in the office.
This story appears in our Januray/February print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.