In Situ Extraction Of Bitumen That’s As Clean As Conventional 

“If we can come up with a non-thermal recovery process... we really should be able to get oil that’s cleaner than most conventional oil.” - Tom Boone, Imperial Oil

Long before concern over greenhouse gas emissions, Imperial Oil was looking for ways to reduce the amount of natural gas the company burns.

Eddie Lui, Imperial Oil We use steam to recover the oil in the oil sands.
Generating steam also creates greenhouse gases
Our challenge is to reduce these emissions. In 2005,
in our Calgary research centre, we developed a
new technology that makes the process more efficient,
reducing these emissions by 25%. It’s called Liquid
Addition to Steam for Enhanced Recovery. Today,
we’ve started implementing this innovation at our
Cold Lake operation.
“At Cold Lake, our number one cost is natural gas,” says Tom Boone, manager of oil sands recovery at Imperial Oil’s Calgary research centre. “We want to do something that’s more efficient than burning natural gas.”

 

Boone is one of the 40 Imperial scientists who have been exploring how to better recover the resource and reduce environmental impacts. “The technology is not going to stay the same. It’s going to change,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of success in the past, but there’s lot more success to come.”

The Imperial lab is where Roger Butler started developing steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) back in the 1970s. Initially thought to be unworkable, SAGD is the primary in situ method of extracting underground deposits from the Alberta oil sands. Steam is pumped into the top of two horizontal wells to heat and loosen the bitumen, which then drains into the bottom well and is pumped to the surface.

Boone says the scientists at Imperial’s research facility are working on adding solvents to the mix in SAGD, thereby increasing the efficiency of the process and reducing the amount of natural gas required.

“The biggest challenge with solvents is figuring out how much more oil do you get by putting solvent in the ground and how much solvent you get back,” says Boone. “You can’t afford to leave too much solvent in the ground. It’s actually more valuable than the oil it produces.”

Imperial is embarking on a pilot project at its Cold Lake operation to test solvent use in SAGD. Boone says the field test follows many years of research in the lab. “We have scientists developing analytical and numerical modeling techniques, and we are conducting tests in scaled physical models. We probably have the most advanced physical model anywhere in the world to look at this kind of research.”

The field test will help Imperial realize a significant gain in SAGD efficiency. But the ultimate aim, says Boone, is to create an extraction method that doesn’t require heat to loosen the bitumen and, therefore, contributes to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Imperial is building a pilot project at its Cold Lake operation to test solvent use in steam-assisted gravity drainage technology. Imperial is building a pilot project at its Cold Lake
operation to test solvent use in steam-assisted
gravity drainage technology.

“What we’re chasing are non-thermal processes. We have a couple of leads — one of them involves solvent,” he says. “If we can come up with a non-thermal recovery process, it will allow us to recover bitumen from more technically challenging reservoirs and, from an environmental standpoint, we really should be able to get oil that’s cleaner than most conventional oil.”

Boone says the technology that uses solvent along with steam can be commercialized pretty quickly. “It’s the next generation that we’re looking to — getting something that’s cleaner than conventional when it comes to GHGs,” says Boone. “If we can make solvent-based technologies without steam work, then we can get there.”

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