Fossil fuels play a critical role in today’s economy and are critical for future global economic development and prosperity. The rise of unconventional resources in recent years has contributed to the growth of petroleum and natural gas production (Figure 1), but at the same time it has also increased their energy intensity. From extraction to refining, the oil and gas industry requires significant energy expenses — approximately a quarter of the energy contained in a barrel of oil is used to produce, refine and transport it. Adding to the mix high price volatility and a constant increase of environmental regulations, demand for technologies that can improve economic performance while reducing emissions is at an all time high. The oil and gas industry is now facing significant pressure to increase energy security by implementing energy efficiency and conservation measures while reducing their overall environmental impact.
The combustion of natural gas and other fossil fuels in oil and gas applications results in the emission of smog-producing chemical compounds including nitrogen oxides (NOx) — one of the criteria pollutants designated by the EPA. In recent years, several highly populated and industrial regions and countries with severe air pollution issues have begun to introduce strict emissions regulations. For example, California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) have introduced some of the most stringent NOx emissions limits, mandating reductions to below 9 parts per million (ppm) in 2015, with plans for further reductions in the coming years.
Both upstream and downstream, the oil and gas industry deploys a range of boilers and furnaces, which in the United States are primarily fueled with gaseous fuels such as refinery or natural gas. Typically, natural gas is used to produce steam, which is in turn a widely used in a range of applications. For example, operators worldwide deploy enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques to aid the extraction of heavy oil. The most common, thermal EOR, requires the burning of large amounts of natural gas to generate steam, which is then injected into the reservoir to reduce the viscosity of crude and facilitate its extraction. Furthermore, oil refineries are highly energy intensive and require significant amounts process heat for the production of gasoline, diesel fuel and other chemicals — mostly supplied by burning refinery gas and natural gas.