Syncrude Canada Ltd. Research and Development

2014 Winner: ASTech Special Award

50 Years of Unlocking the Oil Sands

In 1964, 14 years before Syncrude began producing crude oil from the oil sands, Syncrude’s Research and Development department was created. This small team of geologists, engineers, planners and inventors began the research and development of oil sand technologies.

It was an industry in its infancy working in a unique environment where solutions to unlocking the mysteries of the oil sands would need to be invented, tested and implemented because they simply didn’t exist.

Jim Kresta, senior member of the Syncrude R&D team, says, “Syncrude started as the R&D department back in 1964 to try to figure out how to get the science working that would make this industry possible.” Now, it is celebrating 50 years of kickstarting the industry.

Scientific Contributions

The Syncrude R&D team has worked tirelessly to tackle a wide range of industry problems. Their drive to succeed coupled with collaborations internally and between industry partners, government and universities ensures the industry is continually moving forward.

“Really big challenges provide really big opportunities and right from the start, from making it work to now making it work with a smaller environmental impact is really what drives the team,” says Kresta.

From perfecting the hot water bitumen extraction process to developing improved froth treatment and writing the book on land reclamation, the Syncrude R&D team has made significant contributions in all aspects of the oil sands industry.

“It evolved from understanding the science and proving it on a small scale, to proving it on large scale multimillion dollar projects and having a real impact on both our business and the whole industry.”

One technology the team developed has proven to be an industry game-changer. The team developed hydrotransport technology to revolutionize the transportation of bitumen from the oil sands to the processing plant.

Instead of using conveyor belts, the sand is mixed with water then is transported through pipelines. Kresta says this improves reliability, reduces costs, and improves safety. From this innovation, more developments were realized.

“It led to other improvements like low energy extraction that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t moved from conveyors to pipeline-based hydrotransport,” Kresta says.

Industry Impact

All the research the team conducts is for Syncrude with the goal of advancing knowledge and technology to improve reliability, profitability and environmental performance. Some of the advances in technology are foundational and Syncrude Owners made the decision to make some of this technology, such as hydrotransport and froth treatment, available to other surface mining oil sands operators in order to grow the industry.

While some research is performed to gain a competitive advantage, Syncrude takes an inclusive approach with environmental research by partnering and sharing results with other operators to find solutions for the environmental problems facing the whole industry. This collaboration has a long history and has culminated in the establishment of the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance in 2012.

Historically, companies such as Imperial Oil and Shell have implemented many of the technologies developed by the R&D team. Just as the industry players adopted Syncrude’s hydrotransport and froth treatment technology, the R&D team will continue to collaborate to improve the sustainability of the industry.

“As we go forward, the same type of collaboration will happen in the tailings and environmental areas,” Kresta adds.

A Tremendous Team

Even though the technology developed by Syncrude migrates across the oil sands industry, the team’s motivation has always been focused on developing new technologies to solve the big problems.

“There are really bright people working here and the conversations between them inspire each of us to do better,” he says.

Part of the team’s success has come from the strong relationships between research and development and the rest of Syncrude’s departments.

“We make sure the science works but then you have that whole thing of making it work in a real world environment,” says Kresta. “The partnership we have with the operation folks and the site folks is really valuable to our success and to the company’s success.”