March 5, 2007

Centre for Oil Sands Innovation to pursue sustainable development technologies

Imperial Oil and the Alberta Ingenuity Fund are establishing an innovative research centre at the University of Alberta to address water use and other issues critical to oil sands development.

Mineable oil sands deposits will account for a major portion of oil sands production over the coming decades, but the industry needs new technology to reduce the environmental impacts and make this resource development sustainable. The mandate of the Imperial Oil-Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Oil Sands Innovation is to provide the research breakthroughs that will enable sustainable development of the Athabasca oil sands. Dr Murray Gray will head the centre as its scientific director.

The partners in the centre expect to invest over $15 million in research over the next five years, and recruit more than 50 faculty, graduate students, and researchers. The centre will encourage interdisciplinary research and the application of emerging technologies to the oil sands. Major areas of focus will include water resource management and better upgrading technologies. The long-term scientific goal is to take oil sands from a complex material with many poorly understood and unpredictable characteristics, to a predictable and fully characterized system.

This year, for example, research activity will concentrate on evaluating the use of non-aqueous solvents to separate and extract bitumen from oil sands. Solvent extraction of bitumen from oil sands and oil shale has been studied for at least 85 years, but researchers have yet to come up with a workable process. The biggest hurdle is that solvent extraction results in a suspension of fine hydrophobic particles that have proven impossible to filter or centrifuge from suspensions.

Researchers have recently demonstrated, however, that paraffinic materials could coagulate the fine solids and push them into the aqueous phase, thus producing a clean solvent phase. This discovery sets the stage for the successful solvent extraction of oil sands.

In a multi-pronged approach to this challenge, Dr Gray and his team will begin by analyzing the clay mineralogy of the oil sands under solvent-wet conditions using advanced techniques. They will then examine the solvent-mineral surface interactions that control the removal of the bitumen and solvents from the sand and clay.

The third step will be to investigate the behavior of clays and asphaltenes at oil-water interfaces in order to control the movement of unwanted solids into a carefully controlled water phase. The researchers believe that understanding the basic science of this transfer will enable them to develop new extraction technologies that produce clean bitumen with minimal water consumption.

The centre is also investigating innovative approaches to remove unwanted contaminants from the bitumen and lower energy processes to upgrade heavy oil. Another project involves nanotechnology, the scaling down of technologies to a minute scale by means of modifying the structure of catalysts. The use of nano-structured materials has the potential both to reduce energy requirements and improve operating efficiencies in bitumen upgrading.

The Alberta Ingenuity Fund supports high-calibre science and engineering research and innovation in areas with enduring social and economic impact. Its funding comes from a $1-billion endowment from the provincial government.

More information is available from Kim Fox at Imperial Oil, 403/237-2710.

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