What does the non-stick coating in our pots and pans have in common with heat exchange equipment in the oil sands? It turns out quite a lot. Especially if you consider the experience of Suncor Energy, which is pioneering a non-stick coating technology for use in its in situ oil sands operations.
In situ (in place) facilities use steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology to inject steam underground so the thick oil can be warmed up for easier recovery. To do that, water is heated to generate steam and later recovered and cooled for treatment and reuse. Throughout this process, companies rely on specialized equipment—heat exchangers—to capture heat during cooling and transfer it for re-use to other applications.
Utilizing heat exchangers for energy re-use is common throughout the industry, but they can be a challenge to maintain. The produced water (water recovered together with oil from steam injection) causes scale buildup in heat exchangers. This is due to minerals and other contaminants building up inside the exchangers in a process called fouling. This has maintenance consequences for operations.
“No one in industry wants to see this fouling build up, because it makes our process less efficient and causes more frequent equipment maintenance,” explains Mick McGregor, a Senior Technology Engineer at Suncor. This maintenance in turn increases the use of cleaning chemicals (which require waste disposal), not to mention more equipment downtime and costs.
To find a solution, Suncor has worked with scientists and engineers from the U.S. chemistry company Chemours. After some research that began in 2009, they landed on the idea of applying an innovative industrial coating to the equipment’s interior tubing. The non-stick coating would resist fouling and potentially extend equipment maintenance by years instead of weeks or months. Better management of the fouling issue would also reduce water usage and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as downtime and costs.
Through intense laboratory work, a suitable coating application process was created. After a small field trial in 2010, Suncor launched a full-scale trial in 2013, retrofitting one of the heat exchangers at its MacKay River SAGD site with the new multi-layered non-stick coating, trademarked as StreaMax™ HX. When the coating was checked two years later in 2015, and also five years later in 2018, the results were positive. The new technology not only improved the exchanger’s durability, but it also appears to enhance heat transfer.
“The coating is thin, but tough,” McGregor says. “After five years, the coating is still intact. Since its installation, we’ve never had to clean this heat exchanger,”.
With this technology application—a first in Canada’s oil sands—other opportunities to apply the technology at Suncor facilities are being explored. Already, plans have advanced to install and commission a second coated heat exchanger at the company’s Firebag SAGD project later this year.
Outside Suncor, interest in the novel technology is growing, not only among COSIA members, but also across Canada and internationally. “We’re seeing lots of interest in this technology in our industry and from other sectors,” McGregor notes.
Meanwhile, McGregor and others at Suncor have been actively sharing technology learnings with Imperial Oil and others through COSIA. This collaboration has resulted in Imperial’s decision to incorporate the coating technology in design plans for its Aspen SAGD project.