Foul no more: a first-of-its-kind steam generation lab is tackling a longstanding industry challenge

When it comes to improving the reliability, efficiency and environmental performance of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) bitumen recovery, one clear hurdle is being able to study current processes without limiting or risking ongoing production. A first-of-its-kind test lab which opened at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in the fall of 2018 is making that task a little easier.

The Once Through Steam Generator (OTSG) Applied Research Laboratory includes a lab-scale OTSG developed and donated by ConocoPhillips scientists and engineers that precisely simulates the conditions of a full-size OTSG system.

“Having a dedicated space strictly for testing, research and innovation for OSTG technology will help us learn more about how we can improve our own operations,” says Dave Rowley, ConocoPhillips engineer and COSIA lead for the project. “The production risk for implementing trials on site is mitigated by being able to test various ideas in the lab.”

The SAIT-based lab is focused on the industry challenge of tracking, reducing and potentially eliminating the tube fouling that routinely occurs in SAGD steam generators. The fouling is the result of minerals in the water that build up on the tube walls inside the steam generators during steam production – like the scale that forms inside a kettle. That fouling must be cleaned by operators on a regular basis to prevent the potential shutdown of a steam generator.

Cleaning the tube walls requires taking the steam generator temporarily out-of-service which, in turn, means lost production. It’s a reliability challenge and operational cost that SAGD operators would like to minimize.

By decreasing overall facility efficiency, OTSG tube fouling also results in higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and an increase in water intensity. Improving OTSG reliability will improve overall environmental performance.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that we are taking the time to step back and fully understand what’s been a long-term challenge for this industry,” says Dave. “I think everyone is going to benefit by having us take that fundamental look.”

The OTSG lab is part of SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services (ARIS), which works collaboratively with the oil sands industry on a number of initiatives to advance environmentally sustainable solutions to the challenges associated with steam generation.

The great advantage of the OTSG lab, says Rick Tofani, Director of ARIS, is the ability to test a range of potential remedies in a tightly controlled environment.

“We need to better understand the circumstances under which tube fouling occurs and then determine if there are ways to reduce or prevent it. This lab allows us to use samples from actual SAGD producers and run experiments within exactly the same parameters that exist in a full-size OTSG, including temperature and pressure conditions.”

While the immediate focus of the OTSG lab is tube fouling, it will also be used to research potential solutions for another long-standing challenge faced by SAGD operators — the erosion and corrosion of steam generator pipes that occurs over time.

Rick says the OTSG lab is “very much in SAIT’s wheelhouse,” as an example of bringing applied research and technologists’ skills to bear in resolving ongoing industrial challenges and developing best-in-class practices.

The initiative also aligns closely with COSIA’s mandate to bring together top scientists, academics and innovators to improve industry-wide environmental performance.

“This new lab is a shining example of that kind of collaboration and is a significant step forward in applied research,” says COSIA Acting CEO John Brogly. “This lab will provide new insights into how OTSGs run and test new operating parameters and treatments that have the potential to reduce water usage and GHG emissions from Canada’s oil sands.”

Funding for the lab was made possible by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), with additional contributions from COSIA and Alberta Innovates.