Barbecued Bitumen

Fallen oil prices light fire under trials of hot production method

February 02, 2009

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When the going gets mean, the lean get going, Chris Bloomer believes. He hopes hard times will give his firm’s fiery oil sands technology the “game-changer” breakthrough it has sought with 14 years of research and field tests.

The 60 per cent drop in oil prices since last summer is a wake-up call to pay attention to innovation and efficiency, suggests Bloomer. Experience with economic shocks, as a veteran of more than three decades in the industry, keeps him alert as vice-president in charge of Petrobank Energy and Resources Ltd.’s Alberta bitumen belt interests.

“In our business you’ve got to do as much as you can to protect yourself against risk. The only way you can really do that is by controlling costs. You have to be the low-cost supplier, and that includes environmental costs. That’s the only way you can survive,” Bloomer says.

The novelty of Petrobank’s big idea for making the oil sands efficient and clean wore off long ago. The method is far into a business marathon of proving itself as economic and safe when used on an industrial scale.

A technology subsidiary markets the patented system, trademarked THAI, around the world. The method often attracts public attention because it is an industrial version of playing with fire. It works like an underground barbecue by cooking bitumen to separate it from sand and make it flow.
THAI is short for toe-to-heel air injection. The method is named after its appearance, resembling a human foot in artist’s renderings depicting side views of pairs of vertical and horizontal wells employed to extract bitumen.

At the toes, vertical wells blast down about three million cubic feet per day of air with force about 40 times greater than the pressure in a car tire. The machine-made gale ignites the heaviest, most tarry fractions of pre-heated bitumen ore. Each well fans a smoldering “fire-flood” or “combustion front” about 100 meters wide. The heat of up to 1,000 °C advances across oil sands deposits in slow motion of about 30 centimeters per day. The air injections and combustion are completely controlled, Bloomer assures. “It’s a very slow, deliberate process.”

Horizontal wells form the sole and heel of the foot-shaped production network. They collect hot bitumen that melts into fluid and flows to the ground surface. At Petrobank’s Whitesands pilot plant 120 kilometers south of Fort McMurray, backed by $20 million from federal and provincial government technology assistance programs, THAI has produced bitumen in four-digit numbers of barrels per day for more than two years.

Bloomer has emerged as a frequent speaker at technical and financial conferences. He makes progress reports on the system at every step of its long journey towards planned use in a full-sized plant on Petrobank’s 160 square kilometers of oil sands leases.

He describes the “commercialization” exercise of adding THAI to the industry’s mainstream commercial technology repertoire as akin to the painstakingly slow craft of making art objects. Watching him in action evokes images of crafting Chinese lacquerware as multiple inlaid and polished layers are done one at a time, with time off for planning and drying.

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