About 80 per cent of Alberta’s oil sands reserves are buried so deep beneath the earth’s surface they can only be recovered through in situ, meaning ‘in place’, extraction technology. In situ operations use water to produce high-temperature steam that is injected into the reservoir to melt the bitumen. The warm bitumen flows into the lower well and is moved to the surface. As the steam cools, it turns back into water, which is brought to the surface along with the bitumen. The water is separated from the bitumen and channeled through complex water treatment facilities to remove impurities. The treated water can then be recycled and used to produce steam many times over. In situ operators are looking for ways to reduce the high cost of water treatment, improve the reliability of recycling technology and reduce their water footprint. These shared explorations prompted companies to collaborate on plans for a Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC).
The Water Technology Development Centre will allow operators to test drive more technologies than each could on their own while sharing the risks and costs. This will allow operators to speed the development and implementation of new water treatment technologies. It will also shorten the current eight-year timeframe required to field test technologies and move them to commercial application, leading to an accelerated return on investment.
The WTDC will be attached to Suncor Energy’s Firebag facility, which uses in situ technology called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). SAGD is the most commonly used and commercially successful in situ technology employed in Canada’s oil sands region.
One of the innovative portions of the WTDC has been work done on the governance and sharing agreements supporting the test centre. Member companies within the WTDC have several unique advantages, including deciding what gets tested, when and how, and developing and setting standards for evaluation and development of new technologies. Members also have access to information, learning in real time with test data in real time. Member company staff will have opportunities to build and enhance their skills with various technologies by participating in the WTDC as well.
Attaching the WTDC to Firebag will allow the facility to test new technologies on fluids with the same physical-chemical characteristics and elevated temperatures and pressures that occur at commercial SAGD in situ operations. This will also simulate the dynamic process changes that occur at SAGD facilities, allowing for the accurate evaluation of process-upsets on new technologies.
Since it is a dedicated test facility, the WTDC overcomes the many barriers of conducting field tests at commercial production facilities. Commercial facilities are not designed to accommodate the testing of water treatment technologies.
The WTDC will test technologies and practices designed to reduce water use and improve energy efficiency, resulting in an overall smaller water footprint. It will also focus on improved technologies and practices for managing the waste products from water treatment.
Suncor is leading the WTDC initiative, which includes the following members: Canadian Natural, Devon, Husky, Nexen Energy and Shell Canada.