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Innovation and research

Our priority is to supply reliable and affordable oil and gas energy in a way that benefits our customers. At the same time, we have a duty to do so in a safe and environmentally responsible way. That’s why it’s essential to research new and innovative ways to develop hydrocarbons more efficiently and with minimal environmental impact.

We look to technology to overcome challenges inherent in the energy industry. We are one of a select number of oil and gas companies in Canada with dedicated research facilities. Scientists at our Calgary and Sarnia facilities conduct their own research as well as partner with academic experts and scientists at ExxonMobil.

Throughout our history we have exhibited and fostered a culture of innovation that has driven the development of next-generation technologies. It began with Imperial chemist Herman Frasch, who developed a process for removing foul-smelling sulphur from kerosene in 1884. We remain among the top companies in Canada in terms of total dollars invested in research and technology, and we hold over 700 patents from the Sarnia research centre alone.

Scientists at our Calgary and Sarnia facilities conduct their own research as well as partner with scientists at ExxonMobil and academic and industry experts including:

  • Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA): an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. It was launched March 1, 2012, with representation from 13 energy companies. By the end of 2015, COSIA member companies had shared 814 distinct technologies and innovations that cost nearly $1.3 billion to develop. Imperial participates in many COSIA projects including developing effective techniques to restore linear disturbance features in caribou habitat and to contribute to the recovery of the boreal woodland caribou.
  • Centre for Oil Sands Innovation We are the founding sponsor of COSI at the University of Alberta. Through the centre, university experts are conducting groundbreaking research to address a variety of environmental challenges associated with oil sands development, including climate change.

We balance our investments between technology extensions, which can be rapidly deployed to our existing operations, and breakthrough research that could have a significant and lasting impact on the company and society. Today our research investments are focused on:

  • Resource recovery technologies: finding better, cleaner ways to develop oil sands
  • Environmental technologies: developing new ways to reduce operational impacts
  • Petroleum products: developing new and cleaner products
  • Funding projects at universities

Resource recovery technologies

In 1966 we patented our invention called cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) in which steam is injected into the ground at very high pressure, where it softens and mobilizes oil sands bitumen for recovery. [link to Cold Lake poster: CSS and viscosity]

Today, scientists at our Calgary research centre are working on more next-generation technologies to continue to improve efficiency in both oil sands mining and in-situ operations, and to reduce our water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Visit our Oil sands & innovation section

View our Continuous Improvement Through Technology poster about Cold Lake pilot projects in ‘Liquid addition to steam for enhancing recovery’ (LASER) and cyclic solvent process (CSP)

Environmental technologies

Our Calgary researchers are exploring new membrane technology that has the potential to reclaim and recycle more waste water, including tailings, from oil sands mining and in situ operations.

And, since 2003, they’ve been part of an innovative project to manufacture topsoil. This technology involves mixing different natural ingredients to fabricate productive topsoil in several years, instead of hundreds of years.

Read more on our oil sands and the environment page

Petroleum products

Since Imperial’s Sarnia research centre was established in 1928, it has patented more than 700 products and processes. We are also proud of the centre’s role as advanced technical support lab for the global ExxonMobil and affiliates’ lubricants and specialties business.

The Sarnia research centre chiefly supports our downstream operations by developing enhancements and solutions for issues from inhibiting rust and increasing efficiency and production quantity at our refineries, to making higher quality petroleum products.

We’re working to improve the safety and efficacy of petroleum products and their production for consumer and industrial use.

  • Recycling asphalt: Imperial is one of the largest suppliers of paving asphalts in Canada. Between 25 and 30 percent of the roads in Canada are surfaced with asphalts produced at our Strathcona and Nanticoke refineries. Historically, only small amounts of Recycled Asphalt Pavement (RAP) or millings of the old road surface were added to new pavement surface as pavement quality and durability could be impacted at higher recycling rates. Thanks to research by our scientists, the North American industry has been able to increase its commitment to the proportion of RAP in new pavements from 15 percent in 2009 to 21 percent in 2015. Higher rates of RAP benefit the environment and reduce overall road maintenance costs. RAP is now the most recycled product in the world -- even more than paper.
  • Improved heavy duty engine oil for Canadian climates: The Sarnia research centre introduced an improved version of Esso's XD-3 0W40 heavy-duty engine oil to operate in Canadian climate extremes, provide increased fuel economy and meet the requirements of advanced diesel engines.
  • Testing biofuels to meet Canadian climate extremes: We are also testing biofuels to confirm they will meet the rigours of the Canadian climate, and improving hydroprocessing technologies to maximize on-road ultra-low-sulphur diesel production.
  • Optimizing the life cycle of wax: Paraffin wax is one of many products produced from the refining of crude oil. Wax is commonly used in candles but can also be found in coatings for cheese, fruit and vegetables, drinking cup liners, crayons, adhesives for glue guns, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, construction materials, waxed cardboard boxes and even chewing gum.
    Globally, the volume of available wax molecules is significantly decreasing due to new refining techniques. At our Sarnia research centre we are working to optimize the entire life cycle of wax. With our refineries we’re identifying opportunities to increase wax yields by increasing the oil content and using better processing aids, as well as experimenting with injecting stranded wax that is typically ‘waste’ or lower quality raw materials from the refining process.
  • We also work to create improved products. Recently we commercialized Waxrex 1280, a high oil paraffin wax used to make smooth candles. We conducted hundreds of tests to screen potential formulations and evaluated candle appearance and burn capability in a unique candle burning chamber that we designed here.