The oil sands industry is spending millions of dollars on technologies that may never see the light of day – literally.
That’s because these investments are aimed at improving in situ oil sands recovery methods, which primarily take place out of sight, deep underground.
In situ is a lot more like conventional oil extraction than open-cast mining which has been the mainstay of oil sands development since the 1970s. It is also the future of oil sands, since most untapped oil sands deposits are only accessible using in situ techniques.
In situ oil sands extraction is quite energy-intensive compared to mining. At the outset of the process, oil to be extracted exists in a nearly solid bitumen form. This differs significantly from conventional crude which is fluid and can be pumped or forced to the surface under the pressure of natural gas. To make this nearly solid bitumen flow like crude oil you need heat. And that requires water - and a lot of energy!
Any technology that makes in situ extraction more energy efficient is very valuable. It will not only use less water and save energy (and money), it will also reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with oil sands development.
To date, most in situ operations use steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Steam, generated by burning natural gas, is pumped underground to liquefy the bitumen and help it flow to the surface.
Suncor and its competitors are pursuing several promising alternative technologies that can curb energy waste and GHG emissions. Industry is also collaborating through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which has made reducing GHGs a priority.
Some in situ improvement ideas being tested by Suncor and industry include:
- Waterless extraction and the N-SolvTM process - By using low temperature solvents instead of water, N-SolvTM will not only reduce the consumption of process water to zero, it will produce up to 85% less greenhouse gases than SAGD.
- Generating steam using oxyfuel technology combined with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) - Oxyfuel involves burning fuel in air from which the nitrogen has been removed so that it is almost pure oxygen. Fuels burn much more efficiently this way, with much less flue gas and a higher proportion of carbon dioxide. This in turn makes CCS more cost effective for oil sands producers, which if widely implemented could greatly reduce the net GHG emissions associated with oil sands.
- Electromagnetic heating technology - This involves using antenna technology to initially heat the oil sands electrically with radio waves so the bitumen can be pumped to the surface. This is another way of eliminating steam, and therefore water, from in situ extraction. It is also less GHG intensive than burning gas.
While new technologies offer promise in the long-term, we must not forget the immediate opportunity for reducing GHGs - making our operations more energy efficient.
No one technology alone will likely claim the spotlight in perfecting the energy efficiency of in situ extraction. However, the collective impact of several workable technologies should significantly improve in situ extraction performance.