Oil sands researchers keep eye on environmental performance

Despite economic and social impacts of COVID-19, research to decrease emissions and land, water and air impacts continues at Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.

“Time waits for no man.” It’s a piece of everyday wisdom that can equally be applied to research and innovation in the oil sands industry. In spite of every possible setback from lockdowns and travel restrictions to reduced budgets and supply chain disruptions, research supported by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) has continued to move forward.

Research is ongoing in the field at various oil sands locations and at universities and technical schools, aimed at reducing effects of oil sands production on air, land and water. Here are just a few examples of the world-leading work that leverages researchers’ creativity and expertise.

Labs at SAIT and NAIT

COSIA brings together the best researchers from Canada and around the world to tackle environmental challenges in the oil sands. That work demands dedicated spaces and state-of-the-art equipment to develop and test breakthrough science. Among the top-notch facilities conducting research supported by COSIA are SAIT and NAIT (southern and northern technical education facilities in Alberta).

Oil sands operators that use in situ technology to recover bitumen from deep reservoirs are continually seeking to improve the reliability, efficiency and environmental performance of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). But it’s difficult to study various processes while a SAGD facility is operating. For the past two years, a test lab at SAIT in Calgary has offered a dedicated space and controlled environment for that important research. Known as the Once-Through Steam Generator Applied Research Lab, work at the facility is focused on tracking, reducing and potentially eliminating tube fouling that occurs in SAGD steam generators. Minerals in the water build up on tube walls, reducing efficiency of steam generation (which in turn creates higher greenhouse gas emissions) and potentially damaging equipment, but cleaning the tubes means taking the generator out of service. Finding ways to reduce fouling is part of ongoing research at the SAIT lab.

This COSIA blog and video provide more information on SAIT’s research lab.

Meanwhile in Edmonton, the Productivity and Innovation Centre (PIC) at NAIT — among the largest innovation spaces in North America — is home to four COSIA-supported research programs seeking novel ways to treat oil sands tailings, which are a by-product of oil sands mining operations. Tailings are a mix of sand, water, clay and traces of residual bitumen (oil). In tailings ponds, solids slowly settle out and water is siphoned off for re-use in the bitumen recovery process. Oil sands operators are improving tailings management to reduce the need for tailings ponds and to more quickly dry tailings in existing ponds so surface reclamation can proceed. Best practices are shared with industries around the world, as tailings are a common by-product of many mining and industrial processes.

To date, Canada’s oil sands industry has invested more than $10 billion in tailings management an innovative tailings-related technologies.

Putting carbon to good use

The Carbon XPRIZE is a multi-million-dollar competition co-sponsored by COSIA and NRG Energy in the U.S. to find innovative, commercially viable ways to repurpose carbon to create other products, from concrete to vodka. XPRIZE finalists are pressing forward with their research despite COVD-related challenges.

As testing nears completion, judging will begin and it’s expected the competition winners will be announced in the spring of 2021. Although the competition is drawing to a close, the research legacy is what’s important. Several carbon utilization technologies developed through XPRIZE are on course for commercial deployment — in fact some are already out on the market.

Perhaps the real value and most profound legacy lies in showcasing carbon utilization technologies to the world, to elevate and broaden the global dialogue about clean technology and climate change. The XPRIZE Foundation launched the Circular Carbon Network to continue growing carbon utilization technologies by helping to create a global community of innovators working to transform a waste product into a valuable asset.

Putting sunlight to good use

Canadian cleantech company H2nanO has created SolarPass, a technology that uses sunlight to make industrial water clean and safe for aquatic life. The technology has worked well at a lab scale and is undergoing real-life testing at an outdoor pilot in collaboration with oil sands operator Canadian Natural Resources and support from COSIA.

SolarPass removes organics from oil sands process water. Many mining and industrial operations worldwide use a variety of technologies to remove organics from process water, but SolarPass is unique because it harnesses the sun instead of using electricity or other power sources for treatment. SolarPass is therefore less expensive, requires less maintenance, and results in lower emissions.

SolarPass could reduce the overall volume of water needed for oil sands operation, and allow more water to be treated and recycled.