Suncor pioneered oil sands development and our early investments in technology helped unlock the potential of the oil sands. Today, technology and innovative thinking remains fundamental to how we do business.

Technology and innovative thinking remains fundamental to how we do business, learn more:

Suncor pioneered oil sands development and our early investments in technology helped unlock the potential of the oil sands. Today, technology and innovative thinking remains fundamental to how we do business.

Suncor pioneered oil sands development and our early investments in technology helped unlock the potential of the oil sands. Today, technology and innovative thinking remains fundamental to how we do business.

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Technology development

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Suncor 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, new technology and innovative thinking remains fundamental to how we do business. We take a balanced approach to technology development, focusing on both operational technology (step-change improvements in existing processes) and strategic technology (game-changing, disruptive). Our technology development efforts largely focus on four areas (in situ, mining, upgrading and refining, and closure) targeting specific outcome areas: cost management/enhanced profitability, global environment footprint, and regional environmental impact (tailings, water and land).

We invest more than $200 million annually in research and development as part of a robust technology strategy to optimize current asset and develop next generation facilities.

In some cases, we aggressively lead research and development of new technologies. In others, we collaborate through consortiums or third parties. Collaboration is a key enabler to the oil sands industry’s efforts to develop and deploy new technologies.

COSIA

  • Suncor leads or participates in a number of technology studies and projects under 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 environmental improvements. To date:
    • 814 environmental technologies that cost almost $1.3 billion to develop have been shared among COSIA member companies and 68 projects costing more than $200 million
    • Suncor is the lead for the Water Technology Development Centre and a participating COSIA member company in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE.
    • In 2015, Suncor led 51 of the approximately 300 COSIA studies and Joint Industry Projects

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

EVOK Innovations

Suncor is a co-founder of Evok Innovations, an initiative between the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, Cenovus Energy and Suncor to accelerate early-stage technologies. Evok brings together British Columbia’s cleantech industry and Alberta’s oil and gas sector to advance new technologies directed at environmental and economic improvements. Evok was launched in early 2016 and is actively seeking opportunities to deploy its funding with early stage companies to develop technologies for commercial adoption by the energy sector.

Read more about Evok Innovations

Pursuing external technology collaborations

Suncor also monitors technologies being developed by external parties to determine if, and when, an investment by us could make sense to advance the technology or adapt them for our business. This involves funding outside companies whose technology ideas align with the strategic needs of our operations or businesses.

  • Examples of these investments are LanzaTech, a biofuels firm based in the United States that is advancing a proprietary gas phase fermentation technology to recycle waste gas and greenhouse gas emissions into low carbon fuels and chemicals. Suncor also is invested in Benefuel a technology commercialization company focused on building biodiesel production capacity using cost advantaged feedstock.

In all cases this type of technology development is carefully managed to ensure it provides strategic, economic and environmental benefits to Suncor. This external innovation approach is a key strategy in a world of fast changing products and services.

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CIVITASTM

CIVITASTM 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). CIVITASTM products impact the plant working to treat diseases and prevent them from taking hold in the first place.

CIVITASTM 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 dewatering process that will more rapidly turn fluid tailings ponds into solid landscapes suitable for reclamation.

TROTM 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 were 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

ESEIEH (pronounced “easy”) stands for enhanced solvent extraction incorporating electromagnetic heating.

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 began in 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 steam assisted gravity drainage (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, which will advance new water treatment and recycling technologies for in situ oil sands development.

Advancing in situ technology

A major focus for Suncor has been on transforming the in situ production of bitumen, and we are aggressively pursuing a portfolio of technologies that offer the potential to transform the environmental and economic performance of producing oil from the oil sands.

Currently, Suncor is advancing several significant technologies by conducting field trials and advancing the commercial design and implementation:

Electromagnetically Assisted Solvent Extraction (EASE) 

Instead of using steam to heat the bitumen, electromagnetically assisted solvent extraction involves using radiofrequency electromagnetic energy to heat the water already in the reservoir and then the reservoir itself. Radiofrequency electromagnetic heating is similar to your microwave at home. Among the suite of electromagnetically assisted solvent technologies we are pursuing, we are a partner in the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH) field pilot at our Dover site.

The ESEIEH process, also uses a solvent to further lower bitumen viscosity, enabling production to a horizontal well at economic rates. This potentially game-changing technology may remove the need for water to heat the bitumen plus the solvent leaves asphaltines in the reservoir producing a lighter oil, with lower GHG footprint when refined into gasoline and other products.

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Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating Pilot (ESEIEH)

We are part of a technology consortium that is moving forward with a field demonstration at our Dover Site – home of the original steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) demonstration facility – to demonstrate the viability of an innovative in situ production technology.

The field pilot, known as ESEIEH (pronounced “easy”), is a project supported by a consortium of Suncor, Devon Canada, Nexen Energy ULC, Harris Corporation, and Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC).

ESEIEH uses wells configured in horizontal pairs much like a SAGD operation. The radio frequency energy and solvent is introduced to the reservoir in the upper well. Bitumen and residual solvent are produced from the lower well.

If commercially successful, ESEIEH offers a number of potential benefits over conventional SAGD technology, including:

  • reducing energy requirements by up to 75%, which reduces costs and GHG emissions
  • eliminating process water needs, including water treatment and handling equipment
  • significantly reducing the size and complexity of the surface facility, reducing both capital costs and land footprint

Current phase

The project is currently in the second phase which began operations in 2015, and will run for up to 2 years.

First and second phase

  • In 2012, the first phase was a test at our Steepbank mine facility north of Fort McMurray.
  • This test successfully demonstrated radio frequency energy could safely and efficiently heat bitumen, and led to the second phase of the project.
  • The second phase demonstration is located at our Dover site.

Nsolv: toward waterless extraction

Our current technology for in situ production, 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 typically heated to 200°C or more to get the bitumen to flow, consuming a significant amount of natural gas, and necessitating large amounts of water handling and treatment for steam production.

SAGD

Starting in 2013, a pilot plant at our Dover lease began field-testing a condensing solvent extraction technology, with the objective of proving the technology for commercial deployment. The NsolvTMprocess uses the horizontal well technology developed for SAGD, but does not use any water. Instead, Nsolv uses vapourized propane or butane to provide heat the way steam does. But because this solvent also dilutes and mobilizes the bitumen, reservoir temperatures do not need to be raised above 60°C, requiring up to 80% less energy. This potential energy reduction could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The Nsolv technology offers potential economic and environmental benefits. Like ESEIEH, the process produces lighter, de-asphalted, and higher-value oil. Commercially, capital and operating costs could be reduced by removing the water treatment plant and steam boilers; instead, a relatively smaller solvent recovery and solvent vapourization plant is required, which will also reduce the land footprint of the facility. Due to the low temperature and low pressure required for its operation, Nsolv may also allow us to efficiently extract shallow in situ resources which are currently inaccessible.

The Nsolv pilot is the result of collaboration between Nsolv Corporation and Suncor, with support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation. Suncor is actively advancing this promising technology for the development of a larger-scale commercial prototype plant.

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‘SAGD LITE’ and surfactants program: small technology, big benefits

Our SAGD LITE (Less Intensive Technically Enhanced) program refers to technology development where we aim to lower our steam-to-oil ratio (SOR) through the use of surfactants, solvents or non-condensable gas co-injection.

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 at our existing facilities.

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 SAGD production. During the producing life of an oil reservoir, different techniques can be applied to optimize oil production and recovery. Potentially, a reduction of steam-to-oil ratio in excess of 15% will enable more oil production with less steam production and fluid handling requirements.

In 2015, we successfully executed pilot projects testing surfactant technology — one at MacKay River and one at Firebag. One program at MacKay River has been extended to a larger technology demonstration in 2016.

Non-condensable gas co-injection technology

Later in life, mature in situ reservoirs exhibit declining production and increasing SOR. Based on continuous improvement, Suncor uses non-condensable gas co-injection with steam for our wind-down process to divert steam from aging wells to new, more profitable wells with lower SOR. This technology, injects methane to reduce the SOR while maintaining production and pressure, reduces energy intensity and CO2 emissions. The pilot projects at Firebag and MacKay River have shown encouraging results and are being expanded in 2016.

Direct Contact Steam Generation (DCSG)

We continue to lead a project investigating the potential benefits of using Direct Contact Steam Generation (DCSG) as an alternative to the existing once-through steam generators (OTSGs) used in steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). This technology, if proven viable, will lower GHG emissions, water and land intensity while improving the economics of in situ projects.

In current SAGD operations, a well is drilled and steam produced from large OTSGs is injected down the well to heat the bitumen until it becomes warm enough to flow. The bitumen and steam now cooled and turned back into water, are brought to the surface through a second well, and then separated so the water can be used again. Carbon dioxide (CO2) from combustion is conventionally released from the OTSGs’ exhaust stacks.

Using the DCSG process, the direct contact between water and hot combustion products produces a steam and CO2 mixture that is then pumped underground. The process has the potential to reduce GHG emissions because thermal efficiency is higher than OTSGs and a significant portion of the CO2 may be sequestered underground in the SAGD reservoir. The CO2 can also act as a replacement for valuable methane in late life non-condensable gas co-injection.

DCSG technology also has potential water and land management benefits. The system captures the water from combustion, augmenting conventional recycling of about 90% of the water, and reduces additional water required to replenish the system. If taken from existing tailings water, tailings pond water could be consumed with this technology. Further, DCSGs produce the same amount of steam as a large OTSG, but in a vessel that would fit in a typical office meeting room, opening up the potential for distributed steam generation with a far smaller footprint than our current large central OTSG facilities and much less heat lost in distribution of the steam.

Suncor is progressing two areas of DCSG technology development. A six month pilot project at MacKay River will co-inject CO2 with steam into one well pair to assess the potential impacts to reservoir performance, determine if production is maintained, achieve a lower SOR and confirm CO2 sequestration potential. Start-up of the field pilot will begin in the second quarter of 2016 and is scheduled to last until the end of the year, with results available in early 2017.

A second project in collaboration with CanmetEnergy, which began in 2015, will construct a fit-for-purpose lab pilot in Ottawa with testing scheduled to being in 2017. The testing will focus on potential corrosion and its mitigation, fuel efficiency, and optimization of burner designer. The lab will enable a long-term controlled testing environment in support of the field demonstration and commercial implementation.

Suncor is also working with CanmetENERGY and other vendors to design the field demonstration of Direct Contact Steam Generation scheduled to begin at Firebag in late 2017. Using produced water from Firebag operations and existing power and fuel sources, this demonstration is intended to finalize the technical viability of DCSG, while injecting CO2 and steam, sequestering most of the CO2 underground and potentially resulting in less GHG emissions, less water use and reduction in land footprint with a vessel smaller than current OTSGs.

Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) Produced Water Treatment pilot project

During 2014-2015, Suncor hosted a pilot project with GE Canada, Alberta Innovates - Energy and Environment Solutions, ConocoPhillips Canada and Devon to test new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water usage in the oil sands. SAGD operators reuse water as much as possible to create steam, but the water pumped to the surface in the extraction process must be separated from the bitumen prior to being run through a steam-generator. In 2014, the project tested de-oiling technologies, while in 2015 water treatment membranes were tested at our MacKay River facility. Further testing is scheduled to occur in late 2016.

These technologies could enable treating and reusing the water more consistently which means being more operationally efficient and requiring less energy. In spring 2015, Suncor signed an additional agreement with GE Canada and Devon for the next phase of work to further develop technologies to improve environmental performance in areas of GHG reductions and advances in water treatment technologies.

CO2 capture from hydrogen plants

Capturing, transporting and storing CO2 underground are already being used as key long-term tools for reducing large-scale industrial emissions. But current technology remains too expensive for industry to implement on a broad scale. COSIA’s Greenhouse Gas Environmental Priority Area conducted a carbon capture technology scan to identify early-stage promising technologies with the potential to capture carbon at significantly lower costs compared to the current state-of-the-art technologies.

Several promising technologies were identified for carbon capture from hydrogen plants (located at upgraders and refineries) through a Suncor-led COSIA Joint Industry Project with Canadian Natural Resources Limited. Further development is underway on a short list of the most promising opportunities. If successful, the technologies could result in significant GHG emission reductions at a much lower cost and environmental footprint.

Decarbonization

Suncor is committed to developing technologies that will allow us to produce crude oil from our oil sands resources at a supply cost and environmental footprint of production through refining and consumption at or below that of conventional oil. This could be achieved in part through the selective decarbonization of our oil sands bitumen.

What does this mean?

Decarbonization will prioritize the removal of complex, heavy hydrocarbon content in our bitumen as close to source as possible versus processing it at final processing facilities such as refineries; the result could be crude oil delivered at a lower cost with a lower environmental impact from wells to wheels.

Rejecting the portions of heavy hydrocarbon closer to source is expected to reduce diluent required for transportation and the downstream processing hydrogen and energy requirements, resulting in lower greenhouse emissions. Rejecting heavy fractions also would result in an oil that is easier to refine, in turn lowering downstream carbon emissions and costs. Decarbonization will focus on generating full value from our crude oils with a reduced environmental footprint instead of operating simply to maximize product recovery.

Decarbonization, through the combination of more simple, lower energy intensity processing, could result in the same or higher revenue from oil sands at lower cost and lower environmental impact.

Advancing surface mining technology

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Less aqueous extraction

Through industry partnerships with GE Global Research and Alberta Innovates — Technology Futures, we are pursuing new technologies in surface mining and extraction that could reduce the need for water in the extraction of bitumen. Hot water is used in the extraction process to separate the bitumen from the sands. If we can reduce the need for water and replace it with an alternative solvent, we may reduce water usage, the need for tailings ponds and potentially our greenhouse gas footprint by reducing our operating temperature and simplifying our overall process.

Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT)

We will be using a process called Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT) at our Fort Hills mine. The bitumen product we obtain using this partial upgrading process is higher quality as we cut the bottom 10% of the barrel — which is essentially composed of low value heavy asphaltene molecules and mineral solid particles — and leave it in the ground. This means we avoid the production and release of CO2 from this marginal part of the barrel. Additionally, the higher quality bitumen we are getting from this process is expected to result in lower emissions intensity on a full life cycle basis as less energy is required to refine it and get it to market.

Froth Treatment Tails

From smart phones to hybrid vehicles, many of these devices we use on a daily basis are made with rare earth metals. These rare earth metals are currently mined from resource deposits in China — the world’s largest exporter of rare earth metals. Suncor is researching with a U.S.-based company, the potential opportunity to turn existing oil sands tailing deposits, which house some of these rare earth metals, into a strategic resource for the 21st century.

Autonomous haulage systems

Autonomous haulage systems (AHS) use GPS and perception technologies to allow mine haul trucks to navigate terrain. While operators are not required, these vehicles can be operated in a manual mode. This proven technology is being used in Australia and Chile for hard-rock mining operations.

Following successful preliminary trials in 2013-14, Suncor is currently doing a commercial scale evaluation of AHS. This will continue until 2017 in a tightly controlled area of the existing mine.

As we progress, we will continue to evaluate the technology’s performance in our operating conditions and during all seasons to determine the potential commercial and environmental improvements. If we decide to proceed with the technology, progressive implementation may begin in 2017.

AHS technology offers several advantages over existing truck haul operations which could lead to efficiencies and lower operating costs. These advantages include:

  • enhanced safety performance
  • decreased equipment stoppages
  • reduced maintenance requirements
  • reduced environmental impact through better fuel efficiency

From an environmental perspective, the continuous manner in which autonomous trucks operate can reduce fuel consumption. This would be expected to result in lower GHG emissions.

We recognize that any new technology means changes to the required skill sets for workers. At the same time, finding 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.

Permanent Aquatic Storage Solution (PASS)

The Permanent Aquatic Storage Structure (PASS) is a Suncor-led research and technology development project focused on an accelerated dewatering process and treatment of fluid fine tails prior to placement, in a way that would result in creating a PASS lake shortly after the end of mine life that can support a viable freshwater ecosystem. As we progress this technology, we are leveraging our knowledge from our Tailings Reduction Operation (TRO), consolidated tailings (CT), waste water treatment, and through shared knowledge at COSIA. Several elements are progressing in 2016 with an aim to deploy a commercially-ready technology in the field by 2018 and to share the research results with COSIA member companies.

Read more about oil sands tailings technology

Advancing Land Reclamation

Nikanotee fen

In 2013, Suncor became one of the first companies in the world to complete reconstruction of this type of wetland in co-operation with numerous university researchers and consultants across the continent. Research is showing that the fen is remaining wet through the seasonal weather cycles, water quality is good and plants are growing and spreading naturally.

Read more about the Nikanotee fen and other reclamation activities

Technology in our lubricants business

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Lubricants technology: the CIVITASTM example

Our technology story isn’t all about oil sands exploration and production. We produce more than 350 lubricating oil-based stocks and other products that are sold in more than 70 countries. Among them are the CIVITAS line of products which are marketed by Intelligro, the lawn and agriculture operating brand of Suncor. CIVITAS TURF DEFENSE is a cutting-edge white mineral oil plant protection product for use on golf courses and sports fields. This environmentally responsible product works to improve plant health by enabling the plant to better withstand the impacts of stress, including the ability to tolerate limited water conditions and provide a more durable playing surface while controlling disease.the lawn and agriculture operating brand of Suncor. CIVITAS TURF DEFENSE is a cutting-edge white mineral oil plant protection product for use on golf courses and sports fields. This environmentally responsible product works to improve plant health by enabling the plant to better withstand the impacts of stress, including the ability to tolerate limited water conditions and provide a more durable playing surface while controlling disease.

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 these environmentally responsible products to ensure we maximize potential value.

CIVITAS WEEDfree BRAND Concentrate

CIVITAS WEEDfree BRAND Concentrate is a revolutionary approach to broadleaf weed control. The innovative microtechnology enables the product to penetrate more effectively into broadleaf weeds, resulting in no offensive odour and significantly less active ingredients (less than 70% compared to other leading herbicide products) required to control weeds right down to the root. This hybrid selective herbicide provides effective, resourceful weed control.

CIVITAS WEEDfree BRAND Concentrate selective herbicide is available to professional lawn and landscape companies across the U.S. and Western Canada. It’s also available to golf courses across Canada (pending municipal restrictions).

Learn more about Intelligro products

Learn more about CIVITAS WEEDfree BRAND Concentrate

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

™Trademark of Suncor Energy Inc.