Suncor is committed to developing technologies that will allow us to produce crude oil from our oil sands projects 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 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
- less diluent required for transportation and lower the downstream processing hydrogen and energy requirements resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions
- increasing pipeline capacity
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.
Through partnerships with equipment suppliers and research organizations, such as Innotech Alberta (formerly Alberta Innovates), we are pursuing new technologies in surface mining and bitumen extraction that could reduce or eliminate the need for water in bitumen extraction.
Currently, warm water is used to separate bitumen from the sands. If we could reduce the need for water and replace it with an alternative solvent, we may be able to reduce water usage, the need for tailings ponds, and potentially, our greenhouse gas footprint by reducing operating temperatures and simplifying our overall process.
We are currently undertaking various lab pilots utilizing solvents to prove that we can extract bitumen effectively without water and produce a dry mixture of sand and clays from this process that could be returned to the mine for reclamation.
This work includes evaluating many process options to develop an optimal design for a demonstration pilot tentatively planned for 2019.
Froth Treatment Tailings
Bitumen production from mineable oil sands deposits consists of a number of steps aimed at improving the quality of the bitumen produced. One of these steps – called ‘froth treatment’ – uses a light hydrocarbon to help remove most of the water and minerals from bitumen froth generated in the extraction circuit, making the resulting diluted bitumen suitable for upgrading. The water and minerals are part of a tailings stream known as Froth Treatment Tailings (FTT). The FTT consists of water, sand, various minerals and residual hydrocarbons.
In order to manage FTT material efficiently (both short term and long term), some of the properties of the stream need to be considered. Constituents like Rare Earth Elements (REEs) or titanium and zirconium compounds could be potential revenue streams in the future. At the same time, environmental considerations for other constituents require detailed plans for long-term placement.
Environmental performance assessment of FTT provides a strong example of successful industrial collaboration. Through COSIA, Suncor is actively involved in various programs to measure the impact of FTT, and develop mitigation strategies. Suncor is further actively looking at ways to utilize the natural bio-activity observed in the tailings containment areas to manage environmental impacts of the material.
In addition, Suncor has recognized that the presence of REEs in FTT could mean that these materials could be considered a strategic resource for the 21st century rather than a ‘waste’ stream. Many daily-use items (from rechargeable batteries and magnets to welding goggles) make use of minerals like vanadium and titanium. Research is ongoing to determine if processes can be developed that would commercially unlock the value of these elements, while at the same time improving the long-term environmental performance of the oil sands industry.
Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT)
Our Fort Hills mine uses a Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT) to convert bitumen froth generated in the extraction circuit into an upgrader feedstock. In PFT, we selectively remove part of the asphaltenes (the low-value, heavy fraction of the mined bitumen) to create a lighter, higher quality bitumen that requires less diluent to transport by pipeline and no upgrading requirements leaves us more flexibility for 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 States
Autonomous haulage systems (AHS)
In early 2018, we announced we are proceeding with the phased implementation of autonomous haulage systems (AHS) at company-operated mines, starting with the North Steepbank mine. Over the next six years, we expect to deploy more than 150 autonomous haul trucks in the full program, which will be one of the largest investments in electric autonomous vehicles in the world.
Autonomous haul trucks operate using GPS, wireless communication and perceptive technologies. The trucks operate predictably and employ a suite of safety features like prescribed route mapping and obstacle detection systems. They also reduce interaction between people and equipment which decreases incident rates and injury potential. Trucks used to support Suncor’s operations are designed to operate in either an autonomous or manual mode.
While Suncor is the first company in Canada to deploy the equipment, this technology is used commercially in mining environments across Australia, the United States and Chile.
Evaluations have shown the technology offers many advantages over existing truck and shovel operations, including enhanced safety performance, better operating efficiency and lower operating costs.
The implementation of AHS will change roles and required skill sets for some employees at Suncor's operations over time. A staged approach to deployment will allow the company to deliberately focus on each mine and apply lessons from one to the next.