Research & Development
Researchers are looking for ways to separate the bitumen from the oil sands with little or no water use.
Researchers at the University of Alberta (U of A) are looking for ways to replace water with solvents in oil sands mining and extraction operations. Scientists at the Imperial Oil-Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI) are studying methods of non-aqueous extraction, that is: how to separate the bitumen from the oil sands with little or no water use.
Through the Imperial Oil-Alberta Ingenuity Centre for
Oil Sands Innovation, university experts are conducting
groundbreaking research to address environmental
challenges associated with oil sands development.
Currently, mining operators mix oil sands with warm water which creates a slurry. Then, the bitumen froth is skimmed off and after additional processing, the bitumen is sent for upgrading. The leftover material — a mixture of water, clay, silt and sand — is sent to a tailings pond to be managed and eventually reclaimed.
“Instead of water, we’ll use organic solvent,” says Dr. Tony Yeung, U of A professor and COSI project leader. “When you do laundry, most of the time you wash your clothes in water. Sometimes you dry clean them. You could say we’re looking at how to dry clean the oil sands.”
Yeung’s job is to look at the basic science of using solvents in oil sands mining and extraction operations. “There are many things that we don’t understand, such as whether small particles adhere to or repel each other in a hydrocarbon environment. That is relatively uncharted territory,” he explains. Additionally, near complete recovery of the solvent from the remaining tailings needs to be achieved — a combination of good science and good engineering is required.
Yeung and his colleagues at COSI are doing the "R" in R and D. “Our role is to look at the basic science behind the process. We’re not doing any technology development.” That’s up to the oil companies.
Ron Myers of Imperial Oil — one of the founders of COSI — says taking the research to the next step often can cost tens of millions of dollars for larger scale demonstration. “We will take the ideas that look like they could lead to a new process, bring them into our shop and we’ll develop them,” says Myers, manager of facilities and environment research group at Imperial’s research facility in Calgary. “Universities typically don't have the resources, the skills or access to operating sites required to do that”
Scientists at COSI are working on more than 20 interrelated projects — work that will eventually be published. COSI is funded by Imperial Oil and Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environmental Solutions, along with Natural Resources Canada’s Foundation for Innovation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.