Getting the Oil Out


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Dr. Ishai Dror and Prof. Brian Berkowitz. Getting the oil to flow
Part family saga, part invention that might help extend the world’s oil reserves for many years to come, the story of a patent for a method of extracting usable oil from so-called oil sands has all the elements of a "tragedy-to-bittersweet success" movie.

The story begins with Prof. Norbert Berkowitz, father of the Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Brian Berkowitz, who was a highly respected coal chemist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. The northern part of Alberta, one of Canada’s western provinces, contains enormous deposits of oil in its oil sands. The problem is that the oil in these deposits is more like thick tar than a gushing liquid, making it impossible to simply sink a well and pump the stuff up. This oil is presently dug up and diluted with large amounts of solvent, or even larger amounts of a thinner oil, so it can be piped to refineries hundreds and thousands of kilometers away. But these methods are expensive and problematic, severely limiting the extraction potential of these fields.

Norbert Berkowitz had an idea for turning the viscous gunk from oil sands into flowing oil, using water. He and his Calgary-based business partner, Stephen Dunn, applied for a patent for the process in Canada. But they needed to test the idea, and Norbert, who was retired at that point, did not have immediate access to a lab. Before he got the chance to begin carrying out experiments on his idea, he and his wife, Sheila, were tragically killed in an auto accident in 2001.

Dunn met Brian and his siblings in Edmonton, where they had gathered soon after the accident, and gave them a copy of the patent application as a family keepsake. Then and there, Brian promised he would take up where his father had left off and see the project to fruition. For Brian, whose area of research is hydrology, this involved first and foremost a crash course in hydrocarbon chemistry. Even with some knowledge of petroleum engineering (which he’d picked up some 20 years earlier during his M.Sc. studies), he needed specialized knowledge to carry on with the project. Fortunately, his father had written three books and dozens of scientific papers on the subject, and these became Berkowitz’s study guides, inspiring him to delve more deeply into the basic science behind the idea. For Brian, touching and reading these books was "both magical and intensely painful."

When the time came to build the actual apparatus in his lab in the Environmental Sciences and Energy Research Department with the help of then post-doctoral fellow Ishai Dror, it took two and a half years to plan, construct and test an experimental system. "We had to design everything ourselves, from the screws on up," says Berkowitz. The process then had to be fine-tuned. "Cook" it too long, and instead of free-flowing oil the result is coke, a sort of low-grade coal. More than once, Berkowitz found himself covered in oil from small explosions, and the lab walls had to be repainted. After countless late nights in the lab and dozens of nights spent reading and thinking, the day finally arrived when the oil, in a cinematic "Eureka!" moment, began to flow like milk.

Berkowitz’s father had come up with a way to create a system that could potentially extract a large amount of oil quickly and efficiently. The process relies on water that is heated under pressure. Although it had been known for some time that a hot "supercritical liquid" could be used to partially break down viscous oil, the new system translates this knowledge into a practical, flow-through apparatus that doesn’t require a long heating period. A supercritical liquid is neither a liquid nor a gas, but a substance that has properties of both, plus some atypical properties as well. It occurs at high pressures and temperatures: As the pressure goes up, the boiling point of water rises and the water remains liquid, even at temperatures well above 100° C (212° F). Oil won’t dissolve in either water or steam, but supercritical water can be used as a solvent for all kinds of oil. In the case of the thick oil from oil sands, the supercritical water reacts chemically with the long hydrocarbon chains that cause the oil to be so viscous, breaking them into shorter ones that flow past each other more easily.

As well as the original patent (now handled by Yeda, the business arm of the Weizmann Institute), which has been expanded with add-ons that have come out of Berkowitz’s research, a four-country patent has been applied for under the aegis of Yeda. In addition to Canada, other countries - among them Venezuela - have extensive oil sands and heavy oil deposits that could potentially be exploited with the method

The final scene in the movie is yet to come: Norbert Berkowitz’s business partner, Stephen Dunn (who has since become Brian’s friend and business partner), recently signed an agreement with Yeda to build a demonstration plant in Calgary. Hopefully, as the partners ride off into the sunset, it will be in a car fueled with plentiful Canadian heavy oil.  

Prof. Brian Berkowitz's research is supported by the Sussman Family Center for the Study of Environmental Sciences; the Brita Fund for Scholarships Research and Education; the Feldman Foundation; the P. and A. Guggenheim-Ascarelli Foundation; and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Levine, Pinckney, NJ. Prof. Berkowitz is the incumbent of the Sam Zuckerberg Professorial Chair in Hydrology.