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Oil sands innovation

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

To supply reliable and affordable energy safely and responsibly it is essential to research new and innovative ways to develop hydrocarbons.  Next-generation technologies are improving oil sands production process efficiency in both mining and in-situ operations, and reducing the environmental footprint associated with production by reducing water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

We are proud of our long-term leading role in oil sands research and development.  For example, Imperial patented both cyclic steam-stimulation (CSS, 1966) and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD, 1982), the key, foundational processes behind today’s in-situ bitumen recovery and production.

Our oil sands researchers continuously work to develop new and further enhance proven technologies for extraction, tailings management and reclamation.  Some of our recent innovations include:

  • Liquid Addition to Steam for Enhancing Recovery (LASER).  Patented in 2005, LASER involves adding a volume of light hydrocarbon liquids (a diluent) to injected steam.  Adding solvent to the steam increases the amount of oil that can be produced per unit of injected steam, thereby reducing both water and GHG intensity per barrel of bitumen produced.  Learn more about the commercial use of LASER at about 240 wells in our Cold Lake operations.
  • Solvent-Assisted Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SA-SAGD) involves heating the reservoir by continuous steam injection just like in SAGD, but enhanced by the addition of solvent.  SA-SAGD is expected to increase bitumen production rates from each operating well pair and improve the steam-to-oil ratio, a measure of thermal efficiency.  We’ve operated a $50M field pilot using SA-SAGD at Cold Lake since 2010.  Based on computer simulation and lab scale experiments, and confirmed by the results of the field pilot, it is expected that SA-SAGD will result in approximately a 25-percent reduction in GHG intensity compared to SAGD through lower energy input.  A similar reduction in water use intensity is also achieved.  Imperial is moving forward with plans to apply SA-SAGD recovery to a suite of potential in-situ projects.
  • Cyclic Solvent Process (CSP) is a non-thermal process that injects solvent instead of steam to recover bitumen.  It has the potential to virtually eliminate water use and reduce direct GHG emissions by more than 90 percent.  Our $100-million pilot facility at Cold Lake initiated solvent injection in 2014 and continues to evaluate CSP.
  • Megapads reduce surface footprint by up to 80 percent with the application of advanced horizontal drilling technology. Our recent Nabiye expansion at Cold Lake has a field footprint less than half of what we envisioned when the project first received regulatory approval in 2004.
  • Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT) was patented in 2007.  PFT removes the heaviest asphaltenes resulting in saleable bitumen without using an upgrader, typically a key emissions source.  With the use of this technology and the integration of energy-saving cogeneration, our Kearl operation is able to produce blended bitumen with about the same life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions as many other crude oils refined in the United States.
  • Non-Aqueous Extraction (NAE) is a developing technology that will reduce water use in the mining extraction process by more than 90 percent.  With NAE, dry stackable tailings will be produced, eliminating the need for fluid tailings ponds and resulting in faster progressive reclamation.
  • Chemically Induced Micro-Agglomeration (CIMA) is the addition of a flocculent (a substance that promotes the clumping of particles), which results in dry tailings and water available for recycled use.

Supporting oil sands research 

  • Our new Calgary Research Centre is under construction and the oil sands research team will move from its current location at the University of Calgary to the state-of-the-art facility by early 2017, further enabling improvements and innovations for the industry.
  • Imperial is a charter member of the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which is focused on accelerating the pace of environmental performance improvement in Canada through collaboration and pooled innovation.
  • We are the founding sponsor of the Institute for Oil Sands Innovation (IOSI) based at the University of Alberta with researchers engaged from across Canada as well as the United States, Germany and Australia. Since 2005, we have contributed $10 million and more than $1 million of in-kind support to IOSI.