Jampana, Dr. P.V. And Dr. S.L. Shah

2010 Finalist: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.

New Sensor Technology Has Potential For Drastic Impact In Oil Sands And Medical Fields

Using digital cameras and a sophisticated algorithm, University of Alberta researchers have improved the efficiency of an oil sands process.

The team developed an image sensor that provides accurate data to stabilize separation cell performances and improve bitumen recovery.

Tackling the Problem

Dr. Sirish Shah and Dr. Phanindra Jampana pioneered the new approach in collaboration with Suncor Energy Inc. and Edmonton-based software firm, Matrikon Inc. The research and development project was supported by the National Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and iCORE.

“This was thrown to us as a challenge,” says Dr. Shah, NSERC-Matrikon-Suncor-iCORE Senior Industrial Research Chair. “Suncor had a problem measuring the interface between bitumen froth and the middlings in their separation tanks. They’d tried so many different sensors and measuring devices. But nothing worked.”

Separation cells are huge vessels where bitumen is mixed with hot water. The bitumen and air form a frothy layer that floats on the surface of the water; the sands and clays sink. Skimmers remove the froth to process into oil.

Capturing the froth is key to full recovery of the oil and to protecting the environment, because any froth missed will end up in a tailings pond as extraction waste. However, the large volumes of bitumen, sand and water roil? in the separation cell, making the surface turbulent and difficult to measure and separate.

The New Approach

Typically, companies, like Suncor, use sensors to guide operators, who manually control pumps to keep the surface as calm as possible. With the new technique, cameras monitor the tank through portholes focusing on the interface between the foam and water. The information is fed into a computer that controls the pump. The whole process is driven by a complex algorithm to adjust the pumps in real time.

The new technology resulted in recovery of an additional 1,600 barrels of bitumen per day from one tank at Suncor. That’s 50-per cent less bitumen going into tailings ponds. And at $50 per barrel, it means approximately $30 million additional annual revenue to Suncor. Because of the success of the technology, similar sensors have been implemented for use in two other separation tanks at Suncor.

The knowledge gained during the three-year project isn’t just applicable to the oil sands.

“Sensors are the eyes of a process,” says Dr. Shaw. “If you can’t see it, you can’t do anything about it. That’s why developing new and better sensors is also very important to our work with chemical processes and in medical diagnosis, for example. We can go a long way if we can accurately measure what we are studying.”

Medical Possibilities

Dr. Shah’s research team is also working on evaluating an algorithm that can be implemented on a digital camera and microscope to carry out automated detection and diagnosis of Malaria parasites.

“We’re very excited about this,” Dr. Shah enthuses. “Imagine research used to develop oil sands technology leading to medical imaging. Who would have thought of it?”

Dr. Shah says the beauty of automated Malaria diagnosis is that it can be done remotely with transfer of digital images for diagnostic confirmation.

“It’s amazing to be able to apply automated detection for a disease in developing countries where there is no technology and everything is done manually.”