In 1979, Dr. Robert Butler and his research team filed a
Canadian patent application for the oil recovery technology known
as Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage
("SAGD"). Over thirty years later, SAGD
technology has become a formative oil-recovery process, with over
two hundred patent applications filed in Canada relating to SAGD
SAGD operations have increased primarily due to its potential to
enhance bitumen recovery.1 Patent applications have been
filed in respect of many aspects of SAGD technology, including the
orientation of the wells, the composition of the wells themselves,
and the infrastructure that is required to process the bitumen
recovered from the producing wells.
This article reviews the growth in patent applications relating
to SAGD technology since its inception.
FREQUENCY OF CANADIAN PATENT APPLICATIONS
Though SAGD technology was developed in the late 1970's, the
number of Canadian patent applications relating to SAGD technology
did not significantly rise in the immediately following decades.
However, this last decade has seen a sharp increase in the filings
relating to SAGD technology (see Figure 1). This
development may be attributable to the expiry of key patents and
investments made by companies in SAGD technology as the recovery of
bitumen from oil sands became financially more attractive.
Figure 1: Number of Patent Applications Filed from
A search for "steam assisted gravity drainage" in the
Patent Database of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office
("CIPO") listed two-hundred and three
(203) patents and patent applications related to SAGD technology.
These patents and applications can be primarily categorized under
the following headings:2
acceleration of the start-up phase of SAGD;
water recovery and treatment;
stabilization and mobilization of hydrocarbons; and
separation of hydrocarbons.
Figure 2 below demonstrates the breakdown of
patents and patent applications filed with respect to the above
Figure 2: Number of patent applications and patents for each
category of patent.
The majority of patent applicants in Canada over the last thirty
years were corporations (see Figure 3). Of these,
the largest volume of applications belong to Conocophillips
Company, General Electric Company, Imperial Oil Resources Limited,
Schlumberger Canada Limited, Suncor Energy Inc., Baker Hughes
Incorporated and Nexen Inc.
Figure 3: Types of applicants filing applications from
It is comparatively rare for patents and patent applications
relating to SAGD technology to be owned by individuals. Of the
individuals that are listed as owners, roughly half can be
considered academics (i.e. they teach on topics related to bitumen
recovery and have published related articles), and the other half
can be considered non-academics whose connection to SAGD technology
may not be readily apparent.
Figure 4 below compares the filing of patent
applications with the issuance of patents. As is always the case,
significantly more patent applications are filed than are issued as
patents (though a greater percentage of patent applications
relating to SAGD technology fail to issue as
Figure 4: Patent applications filed and issued from
Overall, it appears that the number of patent applications
relating to SAGD technology have experienced a sharp rise as
corporations have invested and developed the technology in the most
A recent Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench decision allowed a court-appointed receiver to sell and transfer intellectual property rights free and clear of encumbrances, finding that a license to use improvements of an invention was a contractual interest and not a property interest.
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