Oil patch innovation offers opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
9 minutes read
Martin Popiel, Founder and CEO, Viking CIP
After Martin Popiel graduated with a chemical engineering degree in Scotland, he found a job with an Edmonton-based heat exchanger company. The then 25-year-old packed up his bags and moved to Alberta.
That was the first step on a journey that would eventually lead Popiel to his current role as the founder and CEO of Viking CIP, based in Edmonton. To achieve this, he had leveraged his house and his entire life savings to create a unique technology that made oil and gas companies much more efficient and lowered their greenhouse gas emissions.
Popiel’s company is centered around what is known as heavy industrial mobile chemical cleaning (HIMCC). They focus on a piece of equipment called the pressure vessel.
One of the backbones of the oil and gas sector, a pressure vessel holds gases and liquids at a different pressure and temperatures compared to the surrounding air. These are vital pieces of a plant’s infrastructure that require a strict preventative maintenance plan.
In Edmonton, Popiel immersed himself in studying how pressure vessels work. He noticed that a huge amount of work goes into cleaning these vessels via brick-and-mortar outdated methods. A natural innovator, he began to wonder: isn’t there some way of improving the whole process to make it more efficient?
Heavy industrial chemical cleaning hasn’t been re-invented for about 50 years. Who wants to re-invent something when there’s no perceived need to change the market?
Pressure vessels take significant work
“Pressure vessels are pieces of equipment that require regular cleaning and maintenance,” Popiel explains.
The standard process for cleaning pressure vessels was either to send them away from places throughout Alberta, like Fort McKay, all the way to Calgary or Edmonton on a flatbed truck for service, or to disassemble them on-site and clean them there.
This process requires client downtime and has inherent risks to workers and the environment. The conventional method requires an open flame, as well as diesel power. It also creates a noise level upwards of 80 decibels, which is about as loud as a lawn mower or a subway train, and could cause hearing problems after prolonged periods of time.
Popiel began to brainstorm ways to improve the cleaning process that would not require the tearing down or the removal of the equipment. This would not only improve safety in the mine site, but also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions created
Taking the leap with BDC’s support
Popiel left his job in 2016 to start Viking CIP with the support of his wife, Helenka. Initially, the company consisted only of the two of them.
“Helenka was doing the books at the time because she had experience from a previous company she founded. She helped with the back-end of the company in a very, very big way,” says Popiel.
Their first steps were to secure funding to build his new heavy-duty cleaning equipment, which wasn’t easy.
The barriers to entry into the heavy industrial chemical cleaning sector are very high, and as a result there are very few start-up chemical cleaning companies.
“Heavy industrial chemical cleaning hasn’t been re-invented for about 50 years. Who wants to re-invent something when there’s no real perceived need to change the market?” Popiel says.
“The biggest players in the market are all billion-dollar companies, so the barriers to entry into the heavy industrial chemical cleaning sector are very high, and, as a result, there are very few start-up chemical cleaning companies.”
Popiel approached numerous financial institutions for support, but it wasn’t until he contacted BDC that he found the right match. BDC approved a loan for Popiel that covered 50% of the technology development cost.
The loan was contingent upon Popiel matching the BDC funds with his own investment. The couple mortgaged their house and invested their savings in the hopes that it would work out.
Creating something entirely new
With the funds secured, and the company created, Popiel focused on building his first prototype.
“You can’t sell a cleaning service if you don’t have the equipment—so you have to build it, then get your first sale. We were looking at how we could make the cleaning process more efficient, and, therefore, more viable,” Popiel says.
Popiel had designed an entirely new cleaning unit that used a very different approach to cleaning than what had been the industry standard for the past 50 years.
In Popiel’s new process, the pressure vessel is cleaned in place without any disassembly, which means the huge pressure vessel doesn’t need to be sent to Calgary or Edmonton for cleaning. It also uses an internal heating process rather than an open flame, and electricity rather than diesel fuel.
Running combustion engines when electricity is readily available in the vicinity is not an efficient practice. Using electricity while you are at these plants that have an abundance of electricity is extremely clean and beneficial for the environment.
“The process minimizes downtime and eliminates the need to disassemble the massive pressure vessels. It does so using a chemical circulation process to clean it in place. It is a very effective way to clean so that the facility stays running efficiently, pollutes less, and consumes less energy to achieve the customer’s production target,” says Popiel.
“Running combustion engines when electricity is readily available in the vicinity is not an efficient practice. Using electricity while you are at these plants that have an abundance of electricity is extremely clean and beneficial for the environment.”
Securing the first customer
Popiel discovered that convincing companies to try his new process was an uphill battle. He had many doors shut in his face before he secured his first client, a small oil and gas company, in 2016.
“It took a lot to convince them that this new method was viable. The first customer was a shot in the dark,” says Popiel.
“I remember the engineer said, although I thought he was joking, ‘Yeah, why not, if you’re cost-effective, let’s give it a shot’”.
It was an important first step for Viking. The customer was impressed with the both the price and the quality of the cleaning, as Viking was able to offer the service at a lower cost than their competitors because of the new design.
“They were very interested in hearing about the benefits of electricity versus diesel consumption in terms of safety and pollution,” Popiel says.
A difficult turning point
While Viking’s initial clients of small and mid-sized companies quickly became loyal customers, selling to major oil and gas companies proved much more difficult.
One potential client — a major oil company — was only comfortable transferring its services to Viking if Viking had a second back-up cleaning unit. Popiel describes it as a “leap of faith” from the company.
For Viking, the request was both a turning point and a quandary. It became a stressful time for Popiel and his family. He and his wife had gambled everything to build the first cleaning unit. On the cusp of a major contract, they had to find the funds to do it all over again.
They decided to take the risk and contacted BDC to secure funding. By November 2020, version 2.0 of the cleaning unit was created. It turned out to be the right decision: Viking now has a permanent, long-running contract with that major oil company.
Popiel says BDC has played a critical role in Viking’s creation, growth, and continued success.
“BDC was really supportive of innovation. They also really helped out with financial advice and guidance – and they did a great job of checking in to advise us of seminars that might help us. I just can’t say enough good about how much they helped us.”
It is like we’re trying to jump across a pond on lily pads, we’re always trying to see the next opportunity.
Jumping into the future
Since that time, Viking has built two more units and picked up additional customers in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The company now employs 15 staff and is on target to achieve significant revenues in 2022.
Viking also continues to innovate. Its current focus is on introducing remote data collection into its cleaning units, enabling real-time tracking of data, such as temperatures, flow and pressure.
“The goal here is to give customers more metrics, providing them with critical data points from their system before and after the cleaning,” says Popiel. “That’s where Viking is heading into the future.”
Looking to the future, Popiel believes Viking can help oil and gas plants to run at a high efficiency level.
“It is like we’re trying to jump across a pond on lily pads, we’re always trying to see the next opportunity,” says Popiel.
“It will be interesting to see where things go as we approach 2030 and to see how much industry environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals create interest in our reduced emissions approach to chemical cleaning.”