Suncor pioneered oil sands development and our early investment in technology helped unlock the potential of the oil sands. Today, new technology and innovative thinking remain fundamental to how we do business.
In 2017, we invested approximately $350 million in technology development and deployment as part of a robust strategy to optimize current assets and develop next-generation facilities. In some cases, we led research and development of new technologies. Additional investments were made as part of collaborative efforts with consortiums and third-parties. We believe that next-generation innovation for energy technologies will continue to accelerate.
Low carbon in situ production
Our current technology for in situ production, Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), employs vertical parallel pairs of horizontal wells to recover the bitumen. The top well distributes steam to heat the reservoir, allowing the bitumen 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.
We are advancing a portfolio of in situ technologies to lower the carbon intensity of producing bitumen and improve cost competitiveness. We believe the solution will be a hybrid of the technologies we’re progressing with the aim to reduce energy and water use, lower capital and operating costs and improve production rates and resource recovery. Some of these technologies could be applied to existing facilities or new growth facilities and, if successful, would reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity.
Suncor is progressing a number of technologies into the piloting phase that offer the potential for significant reductions in environmental impacts while simultaneously improving the economics of in situ bitumen production.
Our primary focus is on the use of solvents to reduce extraction temperatures and energy usage, increase productivity and improve product quality. If successful, these technologies could have a significant impact in the following areas:
- energy use and GHG emissions
- water use and treatment
- land impacts
- production rates and resource recovery
- capital and operating costs
- product quality and value
Currently, we are advancing in situ technologies in these key areas:
Thermal-solvent based processes
Light solvents like propane or butane can be used in place of steam and in conjunction with wellbore heating technologies.
- We have done specific work over the last five years to advance electromagnetic assisted solvent extraction (EASE) technologies to heat and mobilize the bitumen as part of the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH™) consortium field pilot at our Dover site. The ESEIEH™ field pilot is a project supported by a consortium of Suncor, Devon Canada, Nexen Energy ULC, Harris Corporation and Emissions Reduction Alberta.
- From 2013-2017, Suncor supported a pilot at our Dover lease to field test the solvent extraction technology called Nsolv™ and we continue to evaluate the results.
- We continue to build on our experience of solvent-dominated processes, which date back to participation in experiments over 20 years, to develop optimized steam-solvent hybrid technology to be considered for a demonstration. It potentially will be predominantly solvent-based with a relatively small fraction of steam co-injection (less than 15%) to deliver heat to the reservoir.
The combination of steam and solvent offers potential for achieving significant GHG emissions reductions, and Suncor continues to advance these technologies through simulation, piloting and demonstration. There is a wide variety of solvents, concentrations and other variables to consider, and the optimal technology will depend on a combination of factors.
- One of the technologies we’re currently progressing is ES-SAGD. Expanding Solvent SAGD (ES-SAGD) co-injects up to 15% solvent with steam to reduce the steam requirements of SAGD production. The process is anticipated to reduce process water requirements and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 15% or greater.
In 2018, we are advancing plans for an In Situ Demonstration Facility. The demonstration facility will be flexible in its design, enabling us to pilot and test multiple technologies at commercial scale.
Low Carbon Extraction
While our Oil Sands Base plant uses a first generation extraction process called Naphthenic Froth Treatment, our new Fort Hills mine uses a process called Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT). The bitumen product we obtain using this partial upgrading process has been upgraded to a better quality as it removes up to 10% of the asphaltenes – which is essentially composed of low-value heavy hydrocarbon molecules and undesirable particulates.
Rejecting the portions of heavy hydrocarbon closer to source reduces both the diluent required for transportation and the energy and hydrogen needed to refine the bitumen into fuels. This higher quality oil sands product can be processed at a wider range of refineries. As a result of this technology, our GHG emissions for the average barrel extracted at Fort Hills are on par with the average crude refined in the U.S.