Solvents in situ: the Hybrid Car of the Oil Sands 

Oil sands operators are exploring the use solvents with steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to help loosen and extract bitumen. Laricina Energy CEO Glen Schmidt likens the technology to a hybrid car.   

Laricina Energy CEO Glen Schmidt likens the technology the company is testing to a hybrid car. Laricina is one of several oil sands companies that are exploring the use of solvents with steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to help loosen and extract the bitumen.

Courtesy Laricina Energy Ltd. Laricina’s Saleski site and the non-thermal solvent
production test well from the Grosmont

Continuing his automotive metaphor, Schmidt says conventional SAGD – using natural gas to create steam – is like a conventional car that burns gasoline. Oil sands operators that are using electrical currents to heat the bitumen are like plug and play electric cars, and those using a mix of solvents and steam are somewhere in between the two; like a hybrid car.

“Most things are a spectrum” says Schmidt. “From cold solvents – which use no steam to SAGD or thermal which use pure steam – my expectation is the more optimal design may be somewhere in between.”

Laricina has conducted a series of very promising tests with solvents in its Grosmont Formation at Saleski, southwest of Fort McMurray. There is estimated to be 400 billion barrels of bitumen about 300 metres underground in the carbonate rock – not traditional sands – in Alberta’s Grosmont deposit.

“The overall capacity and quality of the bitumen reservoirs within the carbonates are clearly world class,” says Schmidt. “There’s an opportunity to use another tool beyond steam because of their greater ability for oil to flow or drain.”

Using solvents instead of steam could mean reducing the operating steam-to-oil ratios by 30 per cent, with the accompanying reduction in green house gas emissions. Laricina is also looking at using a non-condensable gas along with the solvents to see whether steam can be cut out completely, thereby dramatically reducing capital costs and the carbon footprint at the same time.

“Costs and environmental impacts tend to go together in our industry,” says Neil Edmunds, Laricina’s Vice President Enhanced Oil Recovery, and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering.

Laricina has conducted field tests of solvent injection into the Grosmont carbonates and its work simulating and modeling solventsteam combinations is continuing.The Saleski SAGD pilot commenced production in March 2011. Following an operating period with steam alone to validate longer term conventional SAGD, the second stage of solvent-cyclic SAGD will commence.

At its Germain project in the Grand Rapids Formation, Laricina is using solvent-SAGD in a demonstration project of 5,000 barrels of bitumen per day to further validate the solvent process.