Read about how the latest technologies are increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impacts in Suncor’s 2014 Report on sustainability

Investing in game-changing technologies – Suncor’s 2014 Report on sustainability

“Our number one job is to find and develop the technologies that can be applied to our real-world challenges and then use them to meet our goals of increasing production, lowering costs and reducing our environmental footprint.” Read more about Suncor’s latest technological innovations in the 2014 Report on sustainability

Suncor’s latest technology innovations and investments are improving efficiency and reducing environmental impacts. Find out more in the 2014 Report on sustainability

View the latest Report on Sustainability

Technology development

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We pioneered oil sands development. Our early investments in technology helped unlock the potential of the oil sands by improving reliability and performance, expanding productivity and driving down costs while reducing our environmental footprint.

Today, technology remains fundamental to how we do business. Our investments in incremental and game-changing technologies target the following performance improvements:

  • higher production
  • enhanced profitability
  • reduced environmental impacts

“When it comes to technology, there is no shortage of people with good ideas,” says Gary Bunio, general manager, technology development. “But there can be a gaping divide between conception and implementation. Our number one job is to find and develop the technologies that can be applied to our real-world challenges and then use them to meet our goals of increasing production, lowering costs and reducing our environmental footprint.”

Our technology and innovation strategy is focused in three key areas:

  • continuous improvement – applying known techniques to existing issues (i.e., ongoing energy efficiency improvements across our business units)
  • operations technology – applying new technologies to existing assets and issues (i.e., our ‘SAGD LITE’ initiative to improve steam/oil ratios at our in situ oil sands operations)
  • strategic technology – applying breakthrough technologies in assets, processes and businesses (i.e., potential advances such as Oxyfuel, ESEIEH and N-Solv)

While all kinds of technology development are important and ongoing priorities, we are placing a renewed focus on breakthrough technologies. With these technologies, we aim for performance improvements of at least 25% in production, profitability, operational efficiency or environmental impact.

Timelines for technology development vary. Continuous improvement means exactly that. Operations technologies typically take one to three years to test and implement. By their very nature, strategic technologies are longer-term propositions that take decades from conception to implementation.

In some cases, we aggressively lead research and development of new technologies. In others, we collaborate through consortiums or third parties. We also monitor technologies being developed by external parties to determine if, and when, it makes sense to adapt them for our business.

"The common thread to all this,” says Gary, "is an emphasis on achieving tangible performance improvements. We need to focus our technology and innovation efforts where we know they will make a difference.”

In 2013, we spent approximately $150 million to support research and development of technology.

Some examples of our technology journey so far:

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CIVITASTM

CIVITAS is the first commercially available fungus control and plant health product for the golf course industry that has a unique mode of action called Induced Systemic Resistance (ISR). CIVITAS products impact the plant working to treat diseases and prevent them from taking hold in the first place.

CIVITAS products are OMRI-listed for use in organic turfgrass management.

TROTM

This new approach to managing mine tailings, developed in 2010, is focused on a de-watering process that will more rapidly turn fluid tailings ponds into solid landscapes suitable for reclamation.

TRO is a key tool in our efforts to progressively reclaim tailings ponds, allowing us to reclaim entire mine sites faster – resulting in the more rapid return of natural habitats.

Oxyfuel technology

Through our partnership with CO2 Capture Project, we are involved in a collaborative research and development project that could improve the prospects for implementing carbon capture and storage at in situ facilities. This technology produces a concentrated carbon dioxide (CO2) steam that is 'capture ready' and is, therefore, expected to avoid or eliminate substantial CO2 emissions at a reduced cost.

Hydrocarbon blanket gas and recovery system

Our hydrocarbon blanket gas and recovery system was installed on the Terra Nova offshore drilling platform in 2012.

Unlike conventional cargo systems which use inert gas to maintain a positive pressure in storage tanks and then vent that gas, along with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), into the atmosphere during production, our system ‘blankets’ cargo tanks with pure hydrocarbon gas recovered during production and effectively eliminates the release of VOCs.

N-Solv

Through collaborative technology development, we are currently undertaking field tests on using a condensing solvent to extract bitumen, which could significantly reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The N-Solv pilot at Dover is currently operating with encouraging results.

SAGD LITE

SAGD LITE involves the addition of slight amounts of soap-like additives – surfactants – in the steam for steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) production.

A pilot project testing this technology was successfully operated at our MacKay River in situ field in 2013. Results were positive and the program is being extended. In addition, three other enhanced surfactants will be tested in 2014.

Autonomous haulage systems

In fall 2013, we began engineering tests for Autonomous Haulage Systems (AHS) at our mine site near Fort McMurray. Using GPS and perception technologies the trucks can operate in a continuous fashion and provide potential efficiencies in maintenance costs, reduced stoppages and fuel consumption, resulting in reduction in GHGs. The technology may also create opportunities for employees to upgrade their technical skills. Testing of AHS equipment is being performed in a tightly controlled mine environment. If we decided to proceed with using AHS on a commercial scale, progressive implementation would begin after 2017.

ESEIEH

This pilot is testing a new method of in situ bitumen recovery using radio frequency heating and solvent to reduce energy, greenhouse gases and water use. Currently, a joint development partnership is doing a technology proof-of-concept project. Field pilot testing for ESEIEH is scheduled for 2014.

DCSG technology

As part of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), we are leading a project investigating the potential benefits of using direct contact steam generation (DCSG) - a direct combustion process that generates a mixture of steam and CO2 that is then pumped underground. The process has the potential to reduce GHG emissions because a significant portion of the CO2 may be sequestered underground in the SAGD reservoir.

Water Technology Development Centre

As part of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), we are working to develop the Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC), which will advance new water treatment and recycling technologies for in situ oil sands development.

Construction of the WTDC is expected to begin in 2015 with opening planned for 2017.

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Technology collaboration through COSIA

Improved collaboration is critical to the oil sands industry’s efforts to develop and deploy new technologies. A key vehicle going forward is Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an alliance of 13 companies representing 90% of oil sands production. COSIA allows participating companies to share technologies and innovations focused on performance improvements in four environmental priority areas:

  • water
  • tailings
  • land
  • greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

In its first 21 months of operation, COSIA member companies shared 560 technologies worth a total of $900 million. As of November 2013, member companies were actively working on 185 joint industry projects worth $500 million.

We are involved in many of these projects. What follows is a brief description of two Suncor-led projects currently underway:

DCSG technology

We are leading a COSIA project investigating the potential benefits of using direct contact steam generation (DCSG) as an alternative to the existing once-through steam generators used in steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) in situ oil sands extraction.

In current SAGD operations, a well is drilled and steam, produced from large boilers, is injected down the well to heat the bitumen until it becomes warm enough to flow. The bitumen and steam, which has since cooled and turned back into water, are brought to the surface through a second well, and then separated. Carbon dioxide (CO2) from combustion is conventionally released from boiler exhaust stacks.

Using the DCSG process, a direct combustion process generates a mixture of steam and CO2 that is then pumped underground. The process has the potential to reduce GHG emissions because a significant portion of the CO2 may be sequestered underground in the SAGD reservoir.

DCSG technology also has potential water management benefits. The system captures the water from combustion, augmenting conventional recycling of about 90% of the water, and materially reduces additional water required to replenish the system. If taken from existing tailings water, tailings pond water could be consumed with this technology.

In early 2014, the Suncor-led project completed testing under pressurized conditions, and in the spring of 2014 the participating COSIA companies received the results on steam generator performance. The results indicated no significant technical hurdles and identified the further development work that will be needed to scale-up the technology.

Water Technology Development Centre

As part of COSIA, we are working with industry partners to develop the Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC), which will advance new water treatment and recycling technologies for in situ oil sands development. The $165 million WTDC, which is expected to begin construction in 2015 and open in 2016, will be attached to our Firebag in situ operations, allowing researchers to test new technologies on ‘live’ process fluids.

The WTDC will also allow participating companies to test more technologies than could be evaluated by each company individually, while collaboratively managing the risks and costs of technology development. It will shorten the time required to field test technologies and move them to commercial application. Other targeted benefits include:

  • reducing the cost of water recycling
  • increasing steam and bitumen production
  • improving the reliability of water recycling technology
  • reducing water use and energy efficiency
  • developing and applying improved technologies and practices for managing water treatment byproducts

Read more about industry innovation and technology in our Oil Sands Question and Response (OSQAR) blog

Read more about COSIA’s environmental priority areas on its website

TRO™: an innovative approach to mine reclamation

We continue to implement our pioneering TRO process in our Oil Sands mining operations. This new approach to managing mine tailings – based on years of research, development and significant investment – is focused on a de-watering process that will more rapidly turn fluid tailings ponds into solid landscapes suitable for reclamation.

TRO is a key tool in our efforts to progressively reclaim tailings ponds, allowing us to reclaim entire mine sites faster – resulting in the more rapid return of natural habitats. While continuing to improve our TRO operations, Suncor will be focusing on areas to augment our ability to reduce fluid fine tailings inventories.

Read more about TRO

As a member of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), we shared our proprietary rights to the TRO process with members of the COSIA Tailings Environmental Priority Area in order to provide details of the process with other oil sands operators. We continue to work with COSIA member companies to further advance industry-wide progress on tailings management.

‘SAGD LITE’: small technology, big benefits

A good example of an incremental technology with the potential to make a big difference is the addition of slight amounts of soap-like additives – surfactants – in the steam for steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) production. A pilot project testing this technology was successfully operated on three well pairs at our MacKay River in situ field in 2013. Results were positive and the program is being extended to three full pads of mature wells in the MacKay River field.

In addition, three other enhanced surfactants will be tested in 2014. A second pilot at the MacKay River project, and two more at our Firebag in situ field, will test three well pairs at each. Steam-to-oil ratio reduction in excess of 15% will enable more oil production with less steam production and fluid handling requirements.

Based on continuous improvement, future technology development will also review the use of solvent addition to steam. Solvents react differently than surfactants with the bitumen and water underground, enabling increased oil recovery in a different set of conditions.

The advantage of our surfactants and solvents program is that it holds the promise of immediate benefits – more efficient oil recovery while using less energy and water – with minimal associated costs or environmental footprint.

Lubricants technology: the CIVITASTM example

Our technology story isn’t all about Oil Sands and Exploration & Production. Our Ontario-based Petro-Canada Lubricants division produces more than 350 lubricating oil-based stocks and other products that are sold in more than 70 countries. Among those products is CIVITAS, the first commercially available fungus control product for the golf industry.

As we continue to market CIVITAS and other products, we are beginning to learn about other potential benefits and applications. We will continue to research and develop this environmentally responsible product to ensure we maximize its potential value.

Read more about CIVITAS

N-Solv: toward waterless extraction

Our current technology for in situ production, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), employs parallel pairs of horizontal wells to recover the bitumen. The top well distributes steam to heat the reservoir and the bitumen, allowing it to flow to the lower well where it can be pumped to the surface. One of the challenges of SAGD is that the reservoir is heated to more than 200 C to get the bitumen to flow, consuming a significant amount of energy and water.

SAGD

Starting in 2013, a pilot plant at our Dover lease began field-testing a new condensing solvent extraction technology, with the objective of proving the technology for commercial deployment. The N-Solv process uses the proven horizontal well technology developed for SAGD, but does not use any water. Instead, N-Solv uses propane or butane to provide heat the way steam does. But because this solvent also dilutes bitumen, reservoir temperatures do not need to be raised above 80 degrees Celsius, requiring up to 85% less energy. This potential energy reduction could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The N-Solv technology holds potential economic and environmental benefits. The process is expected to produce a lighter, de-asphalted and hence, higher-value oil. Capital and operating costs are reduced by foregoing the need to build a water treatment plant and boilers; instead, a relatively small solvent purification plant and solvent vapourizers are required.

The N-Solv process has been tested at the laboratory scale, but requires field piloting to demonstrate commerciality. The two-year demonstration pilot, expected to run until 2015, is the result of collaboration between N-Solv Corporation and Suncor, with support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation. In return for hosting the pilot plant, Suncor will gain preferential rights to the N-Solv technology.

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Electromagnetic and solvent recovery technology (ESEIEH)

We are part of a technology and energy production consortium that has successfully completed the initial proof-of-concept of a unique extraction method with the potential to continuously improve environmental performance and reduce development costs of in situ oil sands operations.

The consortium of Suncor, Devon Canada, CNOOC Limited/Nexen Inc., Harris Corporation and Alberta Innovates completed its initial phase testing of the enhanced solvent extraction incorporating electromagnetic heating (ESEIEH – pronounced ‘easy’) project at our Steepbank mine facility north of Fort McMurray in 2012. The $33 million program is also supported by Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation.

The ESEIEH process removes the need for water by combining Harris antenna technology with our in situ extraction capabilities to heat the oil sands with radio waves through the upper well of a horizontal well pair. A propane or butane solvent is then injected to dilute and mobilize the bitumen with reduced energy requirements, so it can be extracted and transported for further processing. By reducing the energy required and eliminating the need for water and steam, the ESEIEH process also holds the potential to:

  • improve energy efficiency
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • reduce extraction costs

While preliminary results from the 2012 test were encouraging, additional work must be done to determine the commercial viability of the ESEIEH process. A field pilot of the technology is being constructed at our Dover site – the home of the original SAGD site – for startup in 2014.

Hydrocarbon blanket gas and recovery system

Our hydrocarbon blanket gas and recovery system was installed on the Terra Nova offshore drilling platform in 2012. Unlike conventional cargo systems which use inert gas to maintain a positive pressure in storage tanks and then vent that gas, along with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), into the atmosphere during production, our system ‘blankets’ cargo tanks with pure hydrocarbon gas recovered during production and effectively eliminates the release of VOCs.

The system was commissioned in 2013 and is intended to operate for the remaining life of the Terra Nova field so the environmental and economic benefits will be returned many times over. In addition, the commissioning of this system significantly contributes to reducing our corporate VOC emission profile. It also promotes safety as it reduces potential exposure risks to employees.

The hydrocarbon blanket gas and recovery system was selected as one of three separate projects to be honoured with the President’s Award during the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Responsible Canadian Energy Awards in 2014.

More about the President’s Award and the hydrocarbon blanket gas and recovery system

Autonomous haulage systems

In the fall of 2013, we began to test autonomous haulage systems (AHS) at our mine site near Fort McMurray. AHS trucks use GPS and perception technologies and do not require drivers, though they can be operated manually. This is proven technology in hard-rock mining operations in Australia and Chile today.

Testing of AHS equipment is being done in a tightly controlled mine environment. We want to see if the technology will work safely and reliably in our operating conditions and during all seasons. Once the tests are completed, likely in 2016, we will need to do a commercial and sustainability evaluation. If we decide to proceed with the technology, progressive implementation within our operations would begin after 2017.

AHS technology offers several advantages over existing truck-and-shovel operations, including reduced equipment stoppages, improved maintenance requirements, and better environmental and safety performance. This, in turn, could lead to improved efficiencies and lower operating costs.

From an environmental perspective, the continuous manner in which AHS trucks operate can lead to lower fuel consumption. This means reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

We recognize that any new technology means changes to the required skill sets for workers. Haul truck drivers remain one of our most in-demand positions. At the same time, skilled labour continues to be a challenge in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. If adopted, AHS technology could create different kinds of employment opportunities. It is something we will work through with our employees if and when we decide to implement this technology.

Our technology portal

We receive numerous unsolicited proposals for joint ventures, venture capital or new technologies. The quality of these submissions ranges from really good ideas to projects that would be financially and strategically unrealistic for us to pursue.

In September 2013, we established a technology proposal portal to streamline the intake, review and evaluation of proposals. Each idea we receive is summarized on a one-page form. Unless the idea is clearly unsuitable from the start, the review then proceeds along one or all of four stages:

Stage 1: A technical lead gathers background information on the idea and makes an initial ‘go or no go’ recommendation.

Stage 2: If it is a ‘go,’ the idea then proceeds to the technology validation stage where we ask and answer two essential questions. First, can we validate the fundamentals of the science? Second, is this something that could add value to Suncor?

Stage 3: If the idea survives to this point, it moves into small-scale testing where we work with subject matter experts to design bench-scale tests. If the data proves the fundamentals, the idea makes the leap from research to development with a move to technology prototyping.

Stage 4: This involves building business cases and calculating value to determine if a technology recommendation is warranted. If it is, the final step is implementation, where it is up to the relevant business unit to determine ‘what will this look like in the end?’

Since opening the technology portal on our website, we’ve received an average of 20 new proposals a month. Every idea is subjected to the rigorous process described above. The system is designed to be fair, efficient and timely, while also ensuring we thoroughly investigate ideas that could be potentially valuable.

Read more about our technology portal in our Oil Sands Question and Response (OSQAR) blog

Collaborating on carbon capture and oxyfuel technology

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has been identified as a key long-term tool for achieving large reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and bringing GHG emission intensities from oil sands production in line with conventional oil production. Unfortunately, current technology is too expensive for the industry to implement on a broad scale.

To address this issue, we are collaborating with other oil and gas producers through the CO2 Capture Project Phase 3 (CCP3). CCP3 is a partnership of six major energy companies working together to advance technologies to help make CCS a more viable option for CO2 mitigation. The member companies of the CCP3 are:

  • Suncor
  • BP
  • Chevron
  • Eni
  • Petrobras
  • Shell

Suncor and the Carbon Capture Project, along with Cenovus, Devon Canada, MEG Energy, Praxair and Statoil, are collaborating on a demonstration project that employs oxyfuel technology as a means to capture the CO2 produced from the once-through steam generator (OTSG) boilers that are used for a large portion of in situ bitumen production.

Oxyfuel technology offers several potential advances over existing post-combustion CO2 capture technologies, including reduced energy needs, and simpler operations. With proper CO2 capture, it could even capture sufficient water as a byproduct of the combustion process to reduce or even eliminate the need for process water makeup.

We received $2.5 million in financial support from the Climate Change Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) for the construction and operation of the oxyfuel demonstration project. The CCEMC is a government-funded organization whose mandate is to establish or participate in funding for initiatives that reduce GHG emissions and support adaptation.

The pilot demonstration plant is located at Cenovus’ Christina Lake in situ operations. Modifications to an existing OTSG are ongoing and the testing is scheduled for the third quarter of 2014.

In addition to research into and continuous improvement of oxyfuel technology, Suncor is investigating a range of other options for optimizing carbon capture and reducing carbon emissions. This includes capture technologies for refining, power generation and upgrading operations, with a focus on the demonstration of emerging and pre-commercial technologies.

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