Curing oil sands blights with high technology

The CANMET Energy Technology Centre in Devon leads a bitumen belt brain trust

September 01, 2010

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Photography by 3TEN

Hassan Hamza, director general of the CANMET Energy Technology Centre in Devon WITH Randy Mikula, RIGHT, CANMET’s extraction and tailings research chief

At a laboratory complex within sight of the discovery well 40 kilometers southwest of downtown Edmonton that launched the modern Canadian petroleum industry in 1947, the next stage of its evolution began long before popular demand for a greener version hit the current crescendo. “In the last 10 years our focus has been almost exclusively on the environmental impact of oil sands and finding technologies to reduce that impact,” says Hassan Hamza.

As director general of the CANMET Energy Technology Centre in Devon, he leads a scientific heir to research and development efforts in Edmonton and Ottawa that invented the oil sands production method in the 1920s then scaled it up to commercial operation in the ’60s. The green shift of the agency’s agenda is a science and engineering aspect of a widening industry horizon, beyond concentration on cost efficiencies that were the prime concern for pioneer projects. A quarter-century of work on bitumen recovery and upgrading processes primed the lab with the expertise required for its newer quest for practical, large-scale environmental improvements, Hamza says.

In an industry that measures its output in hundreds of thousands of barrels per day and investment in billions of dollars, no effort capable of making a difference is small. CANMET has about 140 scientists focused on oil sands research, funded by an annual budget of about $25 million. One-third comes from Natural Resources Canada, the rest from the oil sands developers.

Bitumen mega-mine tailings rank high on the research and development effort’s list of priority targets. If the industry stayed stuck in its 20th-century routine, it would take a thousand years for the complicated waste material to separate out of water left over from the production process and settle to the bottom of tailings ponds, says Hamza. The cleanup must accelerate to obey rules enacted by Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) since 2008.

The oilfield watchdog’s Directive 74 sets ambitious targets. By 2013, 50 per cent of floating fine waste particles must be treated to the point where they congeal into a material that people and animals can walk across. Barring divine intervention, that means residue from bitumen mining and upgrading must be dry and stackable.

Job one for scientists and engineers is to figure out how that can be accomplished. Suncor Energy Inc., owner of the first Fort McMurray mega-mine, has stepped forward with a system called TRO – Tailings Reduction Operations. This year, that’s a $450 million operation.

Suncor’s process involves treating the mature fine tailings with a “flocculent,” a chemical polymer that behaves like absorbent tufts of wool, and pumping the mixture over a sloped sandbank. As water seeps through the sand, it leaves the dry residue on top that can be used to reclaim the open pit mines. The water is captured and recycled. Suncor says what takes 30 years using old tailings ponds technology, will be done in seven-to-10 years with TRO.

Syncrude Canada is going in another direction at its Fort McMurray complex. In August, CANMET and Syncrude launched an industrial-scale pilot project that uses centrifugal force to spin the water out of its mine tailings, leaving a dry stackable residue in its wake. Again, the water is recycled and in this process dry tailings are captured instantly.

As always there are pros and cons to each technology. Randy Mikula, CANMET’s extraction and tailings research chief, says Suncor’s process involves significant chemical intervention and limited mechanical action. The opposite holds true for Syncrude’s centrifuge technology. Syncrude is also exploring a process called rim ditching, where tailings are pumped through a large tank that captures the fine tails while water seeps through into a drainage ditch.

Both processes are routes to conservation and cleanup goals. “If we turn tailings into a solid, we recover water,” says Mikula. “Each barrel of bitumen uses four barrels of water in most oil sands processing, but by drying out the tails and recycling the water, that figure could be cut in half. And that’s water that doesn’t have to come out of the Athabasca River. “I’m not suggesting that this tailings problem is solved, but I’m really confident we’re on a real exponential growth curve in terms of implementing some of these technologies.”

At Alberta Innovates, the provincial government’s new name for its reorganized array of research and development agencies, Energy and Environment Solutions (EES) has the same overall goals of achieving cleanups at an accelerated pace. The operation has a mandate to enhance sustainable economic growth in Alberta by finding ways to lower carbon emissions, use less fresh water and create a clean energy economy.

“If we looked at the last 25-to-30 years, the question was, ‘How do we make bitumen profitable?’ In the next 25-to-30 years it’s, ‘How do we become more environmentally competitive?’” says EES chief Eddy Isaacs. “We’re advantaged here because we have a very capable and innovative industry and the climate is here for innovation to happen.”

As examples of previous advances on the large scale required for making a difference in the oil sands, Isaacs cites pipeline technology that upgrades bitumen during transport. He points to gasification technologies that reduce bitumen waste and plant fuel costs while producing more energy for upgrading and steam generation.

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