Oil sands innovation


From the outset, the key to development of the oil sands has been technology.

At Imperial, we certainly don't believe that the current oil sands technologies are the best they can be. They can — and will — be improved.

Investing in research and technology is critical to finding cleaner, more efficient ways of developing the oil sands. And the key to innovation is to encourage and support innovative research.

At Imperial, the majority of our research dollars are focused on developing innovative oil sands technologies. In addition to the research that is carried out at our own Calgary research laboratory, we sponsor a wide range of energy research programs at Canadian universities and other institutions.

Supporting oil sands research
We are the founding sponsor of the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI) at the University of Alberta. The aim of this unique Canadian centre of excellence is to conduct breakthrough research that reduces the use of water and energy and decreases the footprint of oil sands development. The COSI research portfolio continues to grow, and now engages researchers from five Canadian universities. Researchers are working on more than 20 research projects in four key program areas aimed at advancing responsible development of Alberta’s oil sands and improved environmental performance. Since 2005, we have contributed $10 million and more than $1 million of in-kind support to COSI.

Current projects involve more than 100 research personnel from the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, the University of Ottawa, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and the National Research Council. In the constant pursuit of excellence in research at COSI, contacts have been established with selected universities in the United States, Germany and Australia.

Researchers are working on a number of different technology projects, including non-aqueous extraction of bitumen. This research could lead to important breakthroughs in bitumen recovery, water use and management of tailings. In 2009, we renewed our commitment to COSI by pledging another $10 million over five years.

We also continue to be one of several oil sands operators funding leading-edge research conducted by the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development (CONRAD). In 2009, we contributed $550,000 to a CONRAD program aimed at remediation and reclamation of oil sands mining sites. Since 2006, we have contributed $1.3 million to support research conducted under CONRAD.

Exploring new recovery technologies
Imperial invented and holds patents on cyclic steam stimulation and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), two key processes used in heavy oil recovery production today. Scientists at our Calgary research facility continue to refine these and other technologies to increase production rates with fewer environmental impacts.

- We continue to develop a new solvent technology called LASER (liquid addition to steam to enhance recovery). LASER involves adding a small amount of light hydrocarbon solvent, or diluent, to the steam that is injected into the ground to recover heavy oil. By adding the diluent, the technology enables more resource to be recovered from mature wells for the same amount of steam injected, resulting in environmental and economic benefits.

- Recently, we commissioned a pilot project at Cold Lake that adds solvent to SAGD wells. By adding solvent to steam, we can produce more bitumen with the same amount of steam, resulting in lower energy intensity and lower GHG emission intensity. The technology has the potential to enhance recovery for certain reservoirs in the Cold Lake and Athabasca areas. Steam injection for the project’s well pairs is underway. The project received recognition from the Alberta government through the Innovative Energy Technologies Program.

- We piloted a steam-flooding technology to improve resource recovery in mature portions of the field at Cold Lake. Results confirmed that the technology can improve resource recovery and reduce GHG emission intensity by up to 30 percent. We are evaluating expanding use of the technology to other parts of the Cold Lake operation.

- We are developing a cyclic solvent process that injects solvent to reduce the viscosity of bitumen deposits and facilitate economic recovery. By avoiding the use of steam to mobilize the deposits, the process significantly improves energy efficiency.

For more information regarding our investments in research and technology and progress on ongoing research initiatives, please read our most recent Corporate Citizenship Report.