Just about everyone knows bitumen from oil sands development is upgraded into synthetic crude oil, which is used for fuels, plastics and other products which make our modern lifestyles as comfortable as they are.
Sulphur has many uses
Sulphur compounds give skunks, grapefruits and garlic cloves their unique scents. In the form of hydrogen sulfide, sulphur also contributes to the much-maligned human scent (think about it and giggle…..we did!) In fact, sulphur is essential to all life on earth. A 70-kilogram person reputedly contains about 140 grams of sulphur. As well, sulphur is found in many life-saving drugs such as penicillin and the sulfonamides.
Sulphur is primarily used in commercial fertilizers, as along with potassium and phosphorus, it’s one of six macro-nutrients which are essential elements for growing plants.
Transported by rail, ship
Sulphur produced at oil sands is initially in a liquid state and looks a lot like orange Jell-O. At about 200 C, though, this Jell-O would burn your mouth (and probably doesn’t taste very good either.) A large percentage of Suncor’s sulphur is transported in rail tank cars to Florida and North Carolina for fertilizer production.
Sulphur solidifies at 115 C, turning bright yellow. You may have seen it stored at various ports in North America – including two locations in the Port of Vancouver - en route to global markets.
Oil sands operators currently produce more than 1.5 million metric tonnes of sulphur every year, enough to fill over 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools. At its oil sands base plant alone, Suncor produces between 1,450 and 1,600 metric tonnes of sulphur per day.
Petroleum coke a low-cost fuel
Petroleum coke is another useful byproduct of oil sands upgrading. This is a carbon-based solid derived from the coker units that turn bitumen into high-value crude oil and diesel fuel. Fuel grade coke is a low-cost fuel widely used in power plants and in manufacturing cement. Other types of coke are turned into carbon electrodes used in steel, aluminum and titanium smelting plants. Suncor alone produces about 15,000 metric tonnes of fuel grade coke per day.
Selling the byproducts of oil sands production not only makes economic sense, it’s also sound environmental stewardship. That’s why producers including Suncor haul the byproducts to the Lynton rail yard, just south of Fort McMurray, where it connects with the North American rail network.
As with bitumen, the challenge for industry is to handle these lesser-known but valuable products in way that both preserves a healthy environment and contributes to Alberta’s and Canada’s economic prosperity.