New technologies and innovative thinking are fundamental to how we do business. In 2018, we invested approximately $635 million in technology development and deployment, and digital technologies as part of a robust strategy to optimize current assets and develop next-generation facilities.
Low-carbon in situ production
Our current technology for in situ production, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), employs two parallel 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 significantly reduce our GHG emissions intensity.
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
Suncor works extensively with research organizations and technology providers as well as our own technical experts to identify, evaluate and advance technologies in our Upstream and Downstream operations. Here are some of the technologies we are advancing:
Suncor is focused on hydrocarbon solvents as an alternative to steam for bitumen production from in situ reservoirs. Suncor’s current focus on solvent recovery processes builds on our experience and background knowledge of solvent-dominated processes, gained from participation in pilots and testing for more than 20 years.
In the solvent-based processes Suncor is pursuing, a light hydrocarbon solvent such as propane or butane is used as the primary means to mobilize the bitumen. We are beginning to pilot a suite of technologies referred to as Solvent+, where the “+” refers to a range of heating technologies that can be coupled with solvent injection. These include wellbore heating, superheated solvent injection, electromagnetic assisted solvent extraction (EASE) and Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH®). If successful, Solvent+ offers the potential for several significant environmental improvements over SAGD including reducing GHG emissions intensity by 50 to 70%.
Expanding Solvent SAGD (ES-SAGD) is an enhancement of SAGD technology wherein a small volume of hydrocarbon solvent is co-injected with steam. The addition of the hydrocarbon solvent is expected to accelerate bitumen production and reduce steam requirements, process water requirements and greenhouse gas emissions. An important component of our evaluation of this technology is enhancing our understanding of solvent retention and recovery. Pad-scale demonstration commenced in February 2019 at Firebag and its results will determine the viability of this technology.
Solvent+ and ES-SAGD technologies have the potential added benefit of lowering the carbon composition of the oil through the production process. This raises the value of the oil and reduces the full life-cycle emissions intensity.
Paraffinic froth treatment
Fort Hills uses a paraffinic froth treatment (PFT) to convert bitumen froth generated in the extraction circuit into an upgrader feedstock. In PFT, we selectively remove the heavy hydrocarbon molecules (the low-value, heavy fraction of the mined bitumen) to create a lighter, higher quality-bitumen that requires less diluent to transport and requires no additional upgrading for the downstream processing.
As a result of this partial decarbonization process, our greenhouse gas emissions for the average barrel extracted at Fort Hills are on par with the average crude refined in the United States1 on a full life cycle basis.
Low-carbon oil sands mining technology
Through partnerships with equipment suppliers and research organizations, we are pursuing new technologies to reduce the need for water in bitumen extraction from mining operations. Currently, warm water is used to separate bitumen from the sands. By replacing that water with an alternative solvent, we have the potential to significantly reduce tailings, costs, and our GHG emissions. A demonstration pilot is tentatively planned for 2020.
Low-carbon innovation in our Downstream business
Since 2006, Suncor has been making a significant impact in Canada’s emerging biofuels industry. Our downstream carbon reduction initiatives include alternative fuels, fuel switching, energy efficiency and investing in new technologies including:
- a coast-to-coast level three high-speed direct current electric vehicle charging network spanning more than 50 Petro-Canada stations
- investment in companies focused on biofuel technologies such as LanzaTech, Benefuel and Enerkem Inc.
- the largest ethanol plant in Canada which provides the ethanol that we blend into our gasoline as well as research into lower carbon intensity ethanol
- increasing renewable fuel options for our diesel and gasoline blending including investment in hydrotreated renewable diesel (HRD) and fatty acid methyl ester (FAME)
Collaboration and partnerships
Innovation is a process that is best served by inviting the brightest minds and diverse perspectives to collaborate.Venture capital funding supports entrepreneurs to advance their ideas to commercialization and build businesses to market their technology world-wide. An example of this is Evok Innovations, a $100 million technology fund co-founded by the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, Cenovus Energy Inc. and Suncor. Suncor and Cenovus have each committed up to $50 million over 10 years to develop technologies to help address some of the most pressing environmental and economic challenges of our industry.
Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) – brings together Canada’s largest oil sand producers to pool expertise and intellectual property to accelerate technologies and improve the industry’s environmental performance. COSIA’s environmental focus areas attract the brightest minds from around the world. The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is which teams from around the world, including Canada, are proving their technologies can be economically scaled up to transform CO2 into valuable, useful products.
Suncor is an active member of the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), which aims to position Canada as a global leader in producing clean hydrocarbon energy from source to end use. The network brings together the oil and gas industry, innovators, investors, start-ups, policy-makers, incubators and accelerators, researchers and students. It facilitates the connections to advance technologies for use in Canada and with the potential for export to global markets emphasizing the potential impact that our country can make to help address global challenges.
1 IHS Energy Special Report: Comparing GHG Intensity of the Oil Sands and the Average US Crude Oil. May 2014.
ESEIEH® is a registered trademark of L3Harris Technologies Inc. in the US, Canada, and other countries.