2005 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Innovative Process Improves Oil Sands Production
Alberta’s oil sands supply about one-third of Canada’s oil production, and massive efforts are ongoing to expand this valuable resource. However, barriers still remain to make the extraction process more economical. A key problem is the significant loss of bitumen in the process – six to eight per cent in primary separation and an additional two per cent at the intermediate, froth treatment stage.
Rodney Ridley of the Alberta Research Council’s Sensors Engineering Business Unit and Patrick Dougan, Senior Research Associate with Syncrude Canada Ltd., have collaborated to develop sophisticated online measurement systems that address this problem. Their work has produced several innovative sensor technologies that give operators the real-time information they need to better control the recovery process and reduce bitumen loss. An online tailings analyzer developed by Ridley and Dougan continuously monitors bitumen levels in the tailings – waste materials from the extraction process – before they are placed in ponds. This provides operators with an immediate, accurate measurement of overall process efficiency at the extraction plant. Another innovation, the K40 gamma spectrometer analyzer, measures the clay content in the slurry (created when hot water is added to the oil sand) as it passes through a pipeline to the primary separation plant. The analyzer picks up the tiny amount of gamma radiation emitted by K40, an isotope of potassium, which is contained in clay.
While this technology has long been used in down-hole logging systems, Syncrude adapted it for use on a pipeline in the oil sand process with ARC providing improved electronics and computational power. Ridley and Dougan have also utilized advanced sensor technology in the redesign of remote infrared analysis systems (also originally developed by Syncrude) that are mounted on conveyor belts at the mine sites to give operators an estimate of bitumen content of the ore. This allows them to adjust the amount of chemicals and water added downstream according to the quality of the raw material detected. A fourth innovation is a froth/middlings interface measurement system that indicates the position of the “froth” – a sticky mixture of bitumen, water and solids – in the primary separation vessel. The level of froth must remain constant to extract the optimum amount of bitumen. Previously, the operator had to observe the froth/middlings interface through a glass window and correct the level measurement manually. The new technology uses video cameras and image processing algorithms to automatically measure and control the froth level. Ridley and Dougan’s work has already provided economic returns from reduced oil losses and improved product quality. Their sensors are now being adopted throughout the oil sand industry.