Greener fuels for a better future

Research associate, Luis Alejandro Coy, is making a name for himself globally by developing nanocatalysts for more environmentally friendly oil upgrading
Roberta Staley
University of Calgary
Fuel and Energy Technology
Research associate Luis Alejandro Coy posing for a photo over a green background.

Luis Alejandro Coy grew up in Bogotá, Colombia listening to his uncle, a chemical engineer, talk about working in the oil refineries of South America. “Since I was in high school, I talked to him constantly about his work and how challenging and important it was for everybody,” Coy says. “He used to explain to me how gasoline was produced and how all the plastics and materials in our daily lives were derived from petroleum products. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Coy’s dreams of following in his uncle’s footsteps followed him into young adulthood, inspiring him to start a chemical engineering degree at La Universidad de los Andes. During the course of the degree, La Universidad de los Andes, a private research university based in Bogotá, presented a unique opportunity: a semester abroad to undertake petroleum courses. Coy chose the University of Alberta in Edmonton, which sealed his ambition to undertake future studies in the field of heavy oil and refining. After his undergrad, Coy applied to do a master’s degree at the University of Calgary, a research hub for innovation in Alberta’s oil sands, and was accepted in 2010.

Throughout his studies, Coy worked in the Catalyst Adsorption for Fuels and Energy laboratory, headed by his academic supervisor Pedro Pereira-Almao, a professor in U of C’s Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering. After Coy completed his petroleum engineering degree, he then went to work in the lab as a research associate and manager, overseeing the pilot plant team and its complement of up to 20 students.

The Catalyst Adsorption for Fuels and Energy laboratory has several major ongoing projects. The most groundbreaking is a new recovery method for heavy oil and bitumen using nanocatalysts that are made in a salt solution containing metals such as nickel, cobalt, tungsten and molybdenum. Nanocatalysts are 100 nanometers in size or less — a particle so tiny it can only be seen with a high-resolution microscope. When nanocatalysts are used for oil upgrading, 30 to 40 percent less steam, heat and pressure is required to refine the oil, producing less greenhouse gas emissions as well as decreasing production costs, Coy says.

The CFI has long funded the Pereira-Almao lab, financing the installation of nine mini oil refineries and thus allowing the research team to experiment with fossil fuels from around the world, including heavy oil from Colombia and extra heavy crude oil from Mexico.

Pereira-Almao says that Coy was instrumental in the early development of the nanocatalysts, when there was little to no support from industry. “Some oil companies thought I was crazy,” Pereira-Almao says. However, Coy’s skill, focus and work ethic were key to devising experiments that began to prove the efficacy of nanocatalysts in oil refining. Coy also developed complex high-throughput experimentation with four reactors to measure the effect of pressure, temperature, catalyst concentration and particle size. As a result, in one year, the lab quadrupled the amount of data, accelerating the development of nanocatalyst refining, says Pereira-Almao. The quality and comprehensiveness of the experimentation run by Coy has been key in attracting support from oil companies such as Cenovus Energy as well as international support from the government of Mexico, which contributed $8 million to the U of C lab for development of the technology. “Alejandro is becoming a leader in the introduction of this technology in Canada and all over the world,” Pereira-Almao says.

Coy’s success is the culmination of many years of experimentation going back to when Coy first started working in the lab in 2010. Coy, who competes in triathlons for fun and will be returning to his home country this December to compete in a half ironman, is no stranger to what hard work can achieve. “Small ideas can become game changers. We can prove that small things can change the whole panorama of oil production in the world. We are going to be so much more efficient and we are going to produce oil that is better and environmentally friendly.”

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