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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 continuous improvement 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 and tailings
- upgrading and refining
Additionally, we target specific outcome areas:
- regional environmental impact (tailings, water and land)
- global environment footprint
- cost management/enhanced profitability
In 2017, we plan to invest more than $200 million in technology development as part of a robust technology strategy to optimize current assets and develop next generation facilities.
In some cases, we aggressively lead development and deployment of new technologies on our own. In most areas, however, we collaborate through consortiums or with third parties. Collaboration is a key enabler to the oil sands industry’s efforts to develop and deploy new technologies.
Suncor leads or participates in a number of technology studies and projects under Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an alliance of companies representing 90% of oil sands production. COSIA has world recognized processes that allow participating companies to share effort, and share the resulting technologies and innovations focused on environmental improvements. To date COSIA has been instrumental in:
- 936 contributed technologies (113 obtained in 2016)
- $1.33 billion spent to develop technologies ($111 million in 2016)
- 276 current, active projects (76 obtained for 2016)
- $680 million cost for current projects in progress ($219 million in 2016)
- 347 completed projects (119 completed in 2016)
- $818 million cost for completed technologies ($111 million in 2016)
- Suncor is the lead for several projects, including the Water Technology Development Centre
- Suncor is also a participating COSIA member company in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE
- In 2016, Suncor led 43 COSIA studies and Joint Industry Projects
Read more about COSIA’s environmental priority areas
Suncor is a co-founder of Evok Innovations, along with the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance and Cenovus Energy 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 for the oil and gas value chain. Launched in 2016, Evok is a fund that offers innovators mentorship and access to capital to progress development of pre-commercial technologies. An important feature of Evok is the access provided to the end customers (Suncor and Cenovus) at an early stage in the life of the start-up companies.
Through 2016 and in early 2017, six technology companies were funded:
- DarkVision: high resolution ultrasound-based imaging technology that can be used within the wellbore
- Kelvin: industrial 3D motion intelligence and asset relationship management
- Metabolik Technologies: bioremediation platform that enables microbes to reduce the concentration of naphthenic acids and other components found in oil sands tailings ponds
- Mosaic Materials: removing carbon dioxide and other impurities from gases through high-efficiency metal-organic framework (MOF) adsorbents
- Opus 12: developing a device that recycles CO2 into cost-competitive chemicals and fuels
- Rotoliptic Technologies: downhole pump technology as a high efficiency alternative to existing electric submersible pumps
Read more about Evok Innovations
Suncor is committed to developing technologies that will allow us to produce crude oil from our oil sands resources at a supply cost and with an environmental footprint (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 products.
What does this mean?
Bitumen is a complex mixture of chemical compounds, including heavy hydrocarbon components that require significant upgrading and refining before they can be used as gasoline, diesel, or other fuels. Upgrading refers to processes that increase the ratio of hydrogen to carbon in these heavy components; one way to achieve this is by rejecting a portion of the carbon from the bitumen. This ’decarbonization’ could result in higher value bitumen-derived crude oil while simultaneously permanently removing carbon, sulphur, and impurities from the global fuel system. This approach is also expected to reduce diluent required for transportation and lower the downstream processing hydrogen and energy requirements, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions from the overall extraction and processing of bitumen. Our Paraffinic Froth Treatment process at Fort Hills is an example of decarbonization technology.
Decarbonization is a strategic focus area for technology development in Suncor – reliable, less energy intensive processes will be needed to realize the benefits. The result could be a higher value crude oil delivered at a lower cost and with a lower environmental impact from wells to wheels.
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 and adapt them for our business. This involves funding outside companies whose technology ideas align with the needs of our operations or businesses. Examples include:
- LanzaTech: a biofuels firm based in the USA that is advancing a proprietary gas phase fermentation technology to recycle waste gas and greenhouse gas emissions into low carbon fuels and chemicals.
- Benefuel: a technology commercialization company focused on building biodiesel production capacity using cost advantaged feedstock.
This type of technology development is carefully managed to ensure it provides economic and environmental benefits to Suncor. It is a key strategy in a world of fast changing products and services.
Advancing in situ technologies
In 2016, we set a new goal to reduce the emissions intensity of our operations by 30% by 2030 – to meet that goal, we need to go beyond today’s capabilities and technologies.
We are advancing a portfolio of in situ technologies as a means of improving the cost competitiveness and lowering the carbon intensity of producing bitumen. We are using what we have learned implementing steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) over the past 15 years to advance a portfolio of technologies that offer the potential to deliver significant improvements in the following areas:
- Production rates and resource recovery
- Energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
- Water management
- Capital and operating costs
- Product quality and value
We think the greatest potential for improvement in these areas is in steam, solvent, electromagnetic energy and surfactants, and we are actively pursuing multiple technologies in this space.
Watch a video about the in situ technologies we’re advancing
To accomplish this, we are pursuing a number of approaches and technologies – some that can be implemented immediately at existing sites and some that will take five or more years to successfully commercialize and may only be used in new field developments.
In the near term, our focus is on a simpler SAGD design that uses less metal, is more efficient and creates a smaller footprint. Through what we call our Next Generation SAGD platform, we expect to see a reduction in:
- water usage
Additionally, we are working on a remote monitoring, control and support system through an Integrated Operating Centre (IOC) from Calgary for our Firebag asset. This approach has the potential to reduce operating and capital costs through a more predictive model and increased cross-functional collaboration using near real-time data to make better operating decisions. This is an example of deploying the latest in innovations in information technology with a new application.
We also see solvent and surfactant assisted SAGD oil recovery as a promising potential solution to reduce energy and water use at our in situ facilities, both for existing operations and for future growth.
In the longer term, we are evaluating and advancing a number of technologies that use less or no steam, through a combination of solvents, solvent steam processes, surfactants, and radio frequency heating techniques. In our view, a likely solution will be a hybrid of the many innovative approaches and technologies we’re testing.
In Situ Demonstration Facility: the next step to commercialize step change technologies
Suncor is currently evaluating the potential to advance our in situ technologies at commercial scale through the development of an in situ demonstration facility (ISDF) at our MacKay River lease. The concept we are exploring is a flexible facility that would be able to support the development of one or more well pads (5-12 well pairs) and the demonstration of multiple in situ technologies using solvent, electromagnetic heating and/or steam.
Advancing surface mining technologies
Our oil sands mining projects are projected to produce a reliable, long-term energy supply while using technology to minimize environmental and social impacts of resource development in the Athabasca Basin region.
Advancing land reclamation
We’re aggressively working to accelerate the pace of progressive reclamation of disturbed land at our mining and in situ locations.
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 (a form of wetland area that is a highly productive and diverse ecosystem) 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
Safety and technology
At Suncor, technology and innovative thinking isn’t limited to improving our environmental impact or reducing costs. Our unwavering commitment to safety is embedded in our approach to operational excellence which means operating in a way that is safe, reliable, cost-efficient and environmentally responsible.
Technology in our lubricants business
Our technology story isn’t all about oil sands exploration and production.
™ Trademark of Suncor Energy Inc.
**In early 2017, Suncor sold Petro-Canada Lubricants Inc. (PCLI) to HollyFrontier. While PCLI will continue to market the CIVITAS line of products under license, Suncor remains the owner of the intellectual property of the products marketed under the Intelligro brand.