2008 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Bringing Increased Efficiency To Industry
Alberta’s oil sands hold estimated reserves of 174 million barrels of oil. And Dr. Hong Zhang is dedicated to finding ways to waste as little of that and process as much of the resource as is possible. By working closely with industry, specifically Syncrude through a partnership with the University of Alberta, the professor of Computing Science developed advanced image processing software, which he calls “the eye”. It gives equipment operators a virtual eye that measures ore particles, which must be within a certain size to go through the extraction process.
Effect on Cost
The technology allows operators to make adjustments to ensure ore particles can be processed without having to stop machinery or damaging equipment. For example, “the eye” will identify over-sized ore particles, which the operator crushes to the right size before they go through screens.
Syncrude loses an estimated $20,000 per hour when big sifting screens reject oversized clumps of oil sands.
Dr. Zhang’s advanced imaging process improves the oil sands industry business performance while providing a platform for increased understanding of bitumen production technology. “Given the volume of the reserves, if we improve the efficiency of the system by even a fraction of one per cent, it translates into billions of dollars,” Dr. Zhang explains. He adds the image processing software allows industry to reduce waste. “If there is less waste, there is less material that needs to be trucked to process it, so we use less energy and cause less damage to the environment,” Dr. Zhang says.
Dr. Zhang began conducting oil sands specific research in 1999. He was seeking a challenge that would allow him to make an impact on society. His partnership with Syncrude allowed him to do that.
“I like doing things that people care about,” he says. “I talk to my partner at Syncrude about technical issues that need to be resolved. Then I come up with solutions that are adopted by industry and have an immediate impact on the province. That’s what motivates me.”
Dr. Zhang attributes much of his success to his students. “I bring them problems and resources and they come up with the solutions.” He adds that he takes particular pleasure seeing his students grow and do useful things, often taking positions in industry in Alberta.
The advance image processing technology Dr. Zhang and his students developed has injected new science into conventional engineering methods in the oil sands industry. Now Dr. Zhang’s goal is to provide support to Syncrude to help with the technology transfer. And he wants to see how his advanced image processing can be applied to other areas in the oil sands.