August 20, 2020

‘Engineering failure’ to solve technology challenges - Alberta Innovates

At C-FER Technologies, a team of experts has a unique job: They “engineer failures” by subjecting technologies to extreme tests to deliberately break them—all with the aim of helping industry find the best available technologies for the job.

“We’re a team of engineers with a set of world-class tools to help industry evaluate equipment performance and de-risk technologies,” says Kirk Hamilton, senior engineering advisor at C-FER, a wholly owned subsidiary of Alberta Innovates.

A photo of Kirk Hamilton, senior engineering advisor at C-FER Technologies

Using the latest analysis and equipment, C-FER staff work closely with companies to identify and evaluate technologies for challenging applications.

At two laboratories in Edmonton, staff carry out rigorous screening tests. In each case, they subject equipment to extreme pressures and temperatures, watching for possible failures. The results can be the difference maker in helping clients avoid costly mistakes in the field. “In industry, it’s critical to know the limits of equipment for each application,” says Hamilton, a mechanical engineer by training.

Hamilton says clients come to C-FER with different needs: Some want to be the first to prepare their technologies for new standards. Others want to understand how a technology will operate in expected operating conditions. Others, especially technology suppliers, want to qualify their products for industry markets.

In each case, C-FER works with their clients on a fee-for-service basis to come up with solutions to critical technical challenges. “People come from all over the world to have their equipment tested at C-FER,” Hamilton says of the agency originally founded in 1984 as a University of Alberta spinoff.

Over the past 36 years, C-FER’s client network has evolved to include global oil and natural gas companies, major pipeline operators and equipment manufacturers.

Custom testing equipment

An example is the work C-FER has done since 2014, as part of a joint industry project involving Enbridge, TC Energy and Kinder Morgan Canada. Using a simulator (known as ELDER) closely replicating underground pipeline conditions, they’ve tested the viability of various technologies—including fibre-optic sensors—to detect small leaks.

A photo of a custom built piece of testing equipment called ELDER that replicates underground pipeline conditions.
ELDER replicates underground pipeline conditions

“Together we’ve been able to put these technologies through rigorous third-party testing. Operators have been able to see what technologies offer the best fit for purpose. Vendors have used lessons learned—including equipment failures—to tweak algorithms and make other changes to improve their technologies,” Hamilton explains.

Like ELDER, each testing system has been custom built to meet a specific industry need. This includes:

  • A 46-metre deep well to test high-pressure well equipment.
  • Load frames that can stretch pipe to determine its strain capacity under high loads induced by ground movement.
  • A massive database that tracks the reliability of electric submersible pump installations worldwide to provide clues to anticipated failures.
  • A deep-water pressure chamber used to test pipeline and wellhead equipment for water depths greater than five kilometres.

A reputation for excellence

As C-FER’s reputation as a leading engineering and testing agency has grown, so has the scope of its projects.

In the past, C-FER staff has partnered with aerospace engineers to conduct “failure testing” of aircraft panels for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Recently, C-FER has teamed up with Canadian operators and equipment manufacturers to apply lessons from Alberta’s thermal heavy oil industry to the international high-temperature geothermal industry.

C-FER is currently working with government officials to connect Alberta-based high-temperature expertise and equipment manufacturers with geothermal operators around the world.

Many of these projects, Hamilton says, involve significant investments, sometimes over many years. It’s an experience that has provided C-FER experts like Hamilton with a deep understanding of what it takes to successfully innovate.

“Solving technology challenges takes time. You have to be flexible and be prepared to learn from failures.”


C-FER Technologies – key facts

  • Wholly owned subsidiary of Alberta Innovates.
  • Founded in 1984 as a University of Alberta spinoff to investigate solutions for Arctic energy development. (C-FER originally stood for Centre for Frontier Engineering Research Institute.)
  • Work has evolved to help a broad range of industries—including oil and natural gas producers, pipeline operators and equipment manufacturers—address challenging technical problems.
  • Staff of 100 employees operate two large-scale testing laboratories in Edmonton.
  • Has a global network of clients in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
  • Partnered with industry on 165 projects in 2018-19.