“I do think it’s important to have some control over the way we manage our water,” says Rick McCourt, a Calgary engineer who leads the project for the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Authority.
“But there are other technologies that we could use to do that better.”
McCourt and his team of engineers have worked for years to develop a new gravel type that can be pumped out of the ground at high speed and then compressed, as a way to speed up the pumping of fresh water.
The project, known as gravel-to-liquids, is a joint effort between Alberta’s Ministry of the Environment and the province’s Ministry for Natural Resources.
The two groups hope to get the system operational by the end of the year.
The gravel is pumped from a gravel reservoir on a gravel-covered hillside near the city of Calgary and then injected into a high-speed engine.
“The gravel is essentially a kind of lubricant,” says McCourt.
“It absorbs and allows the liquid to flow through the gravel.”
When pumped out, the gravel is usually about 10 per cent lighter than the standard type of gravel that’s used in gravel mining.
The new gravel is designed to work with conventional gravel and to have a lower energy consumption and higher carbon footprint.
The goal is to replace gravel mining with a cleaner alternative, says McCollas.
“If we can do it safely and economically, we want to make it a priority,” he says.
It will also require less water to fill the reservoir.
Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says the project will allow the province to control the amount of water flowing into the province.
“I don’t think there’s a question of how much we use water,” Phillips says.
“We’re using less water than we’re used to.”
Phillips says gravel is a natural resource that can have an impact on land use and other environmental factors.
“You need to be very, very careful about how you use it, how you treat it,” she says.
The system uses a high pressure hydraulic pump to extract the water from the ground.
The process requires an amount of energy equal to the weight of about 1,000 pounds.
McCourt says the new gravel will require about 200 to 300 megawatts of electricity to pump out and deliver.
“That’s going to require a lot of water, a lot more than you’d be used to using on your own land,” he said.
“And that’s going be a problem.”
It will take about seven years to ramp up the system, which will also be used by industry.
The province is expected to install the system around the province in the first quarter of 2021.
The industry has already had to deal with the water issue.
In 2013, Alberta’s oil and gas regulator, the Independent Electricity System Operator, ordered the industry to shut down its pumping station in Abbotsford, B.C., because of low-quality water.
“They’ve had to take steps to ensure the water quality has improved and is up to the standard they’ve set,” said McCourt of the industry.
“So we’re looking forward to seeing what happens to that.”
The province says it is committed to continuing to develop new technologies to manage the water and energy needs of its landscape, such as water-efficient vehicles, green infrastructure, and more sustainable uses of water.
Environment Minister of Environment Shannon Phillips said Alberta’s new gravel technology will help reduce its reliance on groundwater.
“A lot of these technologies are coming from the U.S.,” she said.