Questor’s Audrey Mascarenhas has a technology that can reduce pollution and generate emissions-free power
Never mind moonshot research. Solutions to climate change are right in front of us, right now
by Michael Ganley
Audrey Mascarenhas says she has a ready-to-go technology that can reduce the carbon and methane emissions from the thousands of oil and gas flare stacks that dot the province, generate emissions-free power from their waste heat and do it all cost-effectively. Her Calgary-based company, Questor, has long been in the business of selling and renting incinerators to burn waste gas from oil and gas operations. But the company is now taking the process one step further by using the waste heat to generate power onsite and, in the process, is delivering one of the small-scale, proven technologies that can help solve the climate-change dilemma.
Questor is most active in the U.S., where, in response to poor air quality, clean-air regulations force companies to incinerate waste gases to a 95 per cent efficiency rate. Here at home, the uptake of the company’s technology has been slower. “In Alberta right now we’re flaring and venting about 140 million static cubic feet of gas a day,” she says. “If we focused just on flaring, venting and the waste gas going through dehydrators, we could reduce Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60 megatonnes at a cost of less than $1.70 per tonne.”
Mascarenhas says there’s enough waste heat in the province to replace all the coal-fired power the province plans to phase out by 2030, and that it comes with no emissions. “We also don’t struggle when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, because waste heat is coming off so many industrial processes that are running 24/7.”
Questor’s technology is similar to a steam turbine, but runs at a much lower temperature. “The advantage of this cycle is it’s at low temperature and low pressure, so you don’t need a guy with a steam ticket,” Mascarenhas says. That works well at the small, isolated sites that are so common in the oil and gas industry, but it can be attached to any manufacturing or industrial site that is generates waste heat. Questor has, for instance, studied the cooling towers at Enerkem Alberta’s waste-to-biofuels facility in Edmonton. “On our preliminary work, we’re looking at three megawatts of power,” she says, enough to power 3,600 homes.
Mascarenhas says dealing with waste gas – much of which is methane – from the oil and gas industry is one of the biggest opportunities the world has to make an impact on climate change. “Methane is 25 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas,” she says. “When I cleanly combust it, I actually reduce the tonnage of greenhouse gas emissions nine-fold, and that’s with today’s tech. That’s with no more R&D hoping for a magic bullet.”
Mascarenhas says governments have focused on mega-projects like Shell Canada’s $1.35-billion Quest carbon capture and storage system attached to the Scotford refinery, and on moonshot technologies that have yet to be developed. She’s critical of the October announcement by the provincial government to invest another $33 million to advance methane-reducing technologies through Emissions Reduction Alberta (formerly the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation). “If we took that $33 million and said, ‘You know what, industry, we’ll incentivize you to take some early action, say 25 cents for every dollar spent,’ we would have been well on our way to meet the target on emission reduction,” she says. “Instead, we’re taking it to invest in technologies that haven’t been invented yet.” Better, she says, to support the simple, perhaps mundane options staring them in the face. “We’re missing the low-hanging fruit that would not only address climate change but would help with air quality in Alberta,” she says.
Mascarenhas would rather see government bring in the same kind of tough rules around emissions, methane, volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants that have been introduced in the U.S. “Companies had to pay attention to what they were emitting and if they weren’t in compliance they were fined,” she says. The clear rules allow innovators and service companies to know what they have to design to and, most importantly, companies know the expectations.