The algorithm that cracked a perennial oil sands problem

Two University of Alberta researchers help Suncor Energy Inc. boost recovery rates

February 01, 2011

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Sirish Shah at the U of A
Photography by Bluefish

Digital cameras and math underpin an oil sands breakthrough at Suncor Energy Inc.’s Fort McMurray mega-mine. The optical innovation uses a formula devised by University of Alberta researchers Sirish Shah and Phanindra Jampana to increase bitumen recovery rates.

The scholarly pair’s equation works in conjunction with an image sensor developed by Edmonton computer software firm Matrikon Inc. The math and digital observations enable Suncor to make hairline adjustments on the fly in the operation of giant separation cells or vessels where bitumen is washed from sand in a hot-water bath.

As raw ore is fed into the vats, bitumen and air form a frothy layer that floats on top of the water, silts and clays. Captured froth is removed with skimmers and processed into oil. Any froth missed in the skimming process winds up in tailings ponds.

Phanindra Jampana in Fort McMurray

Skimming the mixture is far from easy. The large tanks are constantly being fed by raw ore and water, which makes the froth a moving target. Scooping up the stuff is akin to skimming a layer of soup from a Crock-Pot balanced on a washing machine that’s on a spin cycle.

Typically companies use sensors to guide operators who manually control pumps to keep the surface of the bath as calm as possible. With the new technique, cameras monitor the vats through “portholes” that zero in on the space between the frothy layer and the roiling water below. The images are fed into a computer that controls pumps previously manned by company operators. Adjustments are made in real time, boosting efficiency and recovery rates.

The new technology has resulted in an additional 1,600 barrels of bitumen per day being recovered from just one vessel. The figure means 50 per cent less material ends up in tailings ponds, and at oil prices of $50 per barrel translates into an additional $30 million in annual revenues for Suncor.

For their work developing the algorithm behind the sensors, Shah and Jampana were recognized last fall with an Innovation in Oil Sands Research award from the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation.

But the scholars’ work isn’t limited to the energy sector. Shah’s research team is also evaluating an algorithm that can be used with a digital camera and microscope to help detect malaria parasites. “We’re very excited about this,” he told the ASTech foundation. “Imagine research used to develop oil sands technology leading to medical imaging. Who would have thought of it?”

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