Cool Companies: Alberta's Clean Technologies 2011

Oil Sands

Excerpt from Cool Companies By Claudia Sammer


Canada’s oil sands are the third largest hydrocarbon reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, with proven reserves of 173 billion barrels of bitumen. In 2009, the total output of oil from the oil sands in Canada was about 1.5 million barrels per day and it is expected to double by 2015—and some even predict it will triple. However, the nature of these reserves poses severe challenges in keeping the impact on land, water, air, and energy conservation at an acceptable level.

Open pit mining
Oil sands are made up of sand (83%), bitumen (10%-12%), water and clay. About 20% of the oil sands are close enough to the surface to be recovered with open pit mining, in which the oil sands are scooped out of the ground and subjected to a process that separates the bitumen from the sand and clay. With current technology for surface mining, the black, viscous bitumen at reservoir temperatures is separated from the sand with high-pressure steam, typically requiring three barrels of water for each barrel of bitumen produced.

As exploitation of the resource grows, it is putting a strain on fresh water resources, making it vital to recycle the water used in the surface mining extraction process. The residue of the bitumen surface mining process is tailings, which contain a mixture of water, clay, un-recovered bitumen, solvent, and dissolved chemicals, including some organic compounds that are toxic. These tailings are stored in large ponds where the suspended solids gradually settle at the bottom of the pond—a process that, on its own, can take several decades. In order to control water usage and restore the land being used for tailings ponds to its original state, the tailings need to be consolidated and the water released from the tailings be removed much more rapidly.

Oil sands also require a significant amount of energy to separate and upgrade bitumen to petroleum products suitable for refineries. Not only does this energy-intensive process increase the recovery cost of the resource but it results in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions up to 40% greater than is required to get conventional oil to the same stage. Besides the issue of competitiveness with conventional oil, this has created a political backlash against the resource for its emission of greenhouse gases.

Next generation mining: In situ

The vast majority of the resource (80%) is unsuitable for surface mining because it is deeply buried and has to be produced in situ, through a process in which the bitumen is heated underground to separate it from the sand and clay and the hot bitumen is pumped to the surface. This is done by drilling a pair of wells vertically to the bottom of the reservoir and then horizontally for the length of the reservoir. Steam is pumped into the upper well, which heats the reservoir until the bitumen starts to melt, at which point it seeps to the bottom of the reservoir, where it is collected by the lower well and pumped to the surface. This is called SAGD or Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage. Without modification, total recovery of the bitumen in the reservoir with SAGD is seldom above 50%. The in situ process also uses large amounts of water but most of it is recycled, so relatively little fresh water is used and there are no tailings. By contrast, the water required in the surface mining process is not recycled.

Innovations being rolled out

To meet the environmental and political challenges to oil sands production, industry, government and universities in Alberta have embarked on an extraordinary, collaborative search for new techniques that will reduce the energy requirements (and therefore the greenhouse gas emissions), improve the use of local water supplies and enhance the proportion of the resource that is recovered. Laricina (p. 71) is using solvents in the steam to reduce energy usage in the extraction process, while OPTI (p. 70) and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (p. 71) are finding ways to do the same for upgraders. ET-Energy (p. 69) and the ESEIEH Consortium (p. 70) are using electricity instead of steam to heat the bitumen. Suncor (p. 72) has found a way of treating tailings that will reduce the need for tailings ponds by 80%, while Titanium (p. 73) is finding ways to make the tailings a source of revenue. Petrobank (p. 73) and Gushor (p. 72) are sharply increasing recovery rates of the resource.

All these innovations are supported and enhanced by a significant and rapidly growing network of researchers (pp.74-75) who have attracted considerable funding and international support to improve the extraction of crude oil from oil sands to the point where it will be comparable to conventional oil. There is still a long way to go, but the project is well advanced, as the following pages testify.


(Details not included here)

  • E-T Energy
  • ESEIEH Consortium
  • OPTI
  • Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne
  • Laricina
  • Gushor
  • Suncor Energy
  • Titanium
  • Petrobank Energy  


To meet the challenge of exploiting the oil sands in a politically and environmentally acceptable way, the Alberta government has spearheaded a comprehensive program in which the industry and universities are developing a wide range of new technologies that will reduce and control the environmental impact of oil sands production. A powerful network of researchers has developed in Alberta over the past two decades to explore innovative technologies to drastically shrink and dewater the tailings ponds to reduce the amount of energy and water required in the extraction and upgrading processes and thereby reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This network includes independent research organizations, universities and governments working in close collaboration with existing oil companies as well as emerging new companies.

“As the world runs out of cheap-to-produce oil,” says Dr. Eddy Isaacs, CEO of Alberta Innovates—Energy and Environmental Solutions (p.23), “the average basket of crude oil will contain a steadily increasing proportion of oil from offshore and deeper reservoirs, which require more energy to lift the oil to the surface. So the emissions throughout the world will increase while the emissions from the oil sands will decline as a result of the emerging technologies we have been developing for so many years. I think we can reasonably assume that, in the next ten to twenty years, our emissions could be reasonably close to, if not level with, average oil production around the world.”

Climate Change & Emissions Management Corp (CCEMC)
In 2003, The Alberta government passed the Climate Change and Emissions Management Act outlining the province’s goals for climate change: by 2050 emissions are planned to be reduced by 200 megatonnes, or 50% below business-as-usual levels and 14% below 2005 levels. Four years later, the province established greenhouse gas (GHG) emission limits, requiring facilities that emit more than 100,000 tonnes of GHG per year to reduce their intensity levels by 12%. To meet this commitment, companies were offered three options: bring about operational changes in their existing processes/production plants; buy Alberta-based credits; or contribute $15 per tonne into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund for every tonne over their reduction target. This money is funnelled into CCEMC (Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp.) to be spent on research aimed at the reduction of GHG and the restoration of land and water used by the industry to its original state. About 100 companies are affected by this act and most of them contributed to the fund rather than modifying their existing plants. The resulting income for CCEMC is about $70 million a year, which it has invested in a wide range of innovative technologies—50% of it on greening the energy mix (with two components of alternative/renewable energy as well as transformative changes to the way technology is implemented for fossil fuels), 30% on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the remaining 20% for energy conservation. Contact:, 780.417.1920

Alberta Innovates—Energy & Environmental Solutions
All the research proposed to CCEMC is evaluated by Alberta Innovates—Energy and Environmental Solutions (AI-EES), the new name for what used to be the Alberta Energy Research Institute. AI-EES receives funding of about $20 million a year and acts as a dynamic catalyst for developing innovative, integrated ways to convert the province’s natural resources into market-ready, ecologically responsible energy. It applies scientific rigour in assessing and selecting technologies and partners that will advance best-available global technologies. Some of its most innovative collaborations include companies and institutes such as Helmholtz Association, OPTI (profiled p.70), and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne (profiled p.71), which are pursuing the next wave of solutions, including expanding the range of renewable energy technologies, such as waste-to-biofuels, geothermal and hydrogen systems. AI-EES focuses on three areas of research: energy technologies, environment technologies and renewable and emerging resources. Contact:, Dr. Eddy Isaacs, CEO, 780.422.5523

Alberta Water Research Institute
One of the components of AI-EES is Alberta Water Research Institute, which is working to improve the energy intensity and efficiency of recycling of water for in situ oil sands operations and the biological de-watering of tailings ponds in co-operation with the University of Alberta and industry (GE, Syncrude, Shell Canada and Sanimax, a bio-return (recycling) company owned by American and Canadian families)). Contact:

University of Calgary and University of Alberta
The two major universities in Alberta, the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, lead the academic research effort with a multitude of initiatives, centres and programs aimed at the oil sands. Some of these are run entirely within the university with the support of industry and government, such as the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for in situ energy at the University of Calgary; there are a number of examples where discoveries in university labs have resulted in spin-outs of the technology into commercial companies such as Gushor (profiled p.72) and ET-Energy (profiled p.69). There are also programs that are run by the university but funded by the Alberta government or industry, such as COSI (Centre for Oil Sands Innovation), which was founded in the University of Calgary by a grant from Imperial Oil and has now expanded to include five universities with 20 research projects; COSI researchers are working on a number of different technology projects, including non-aqueous extraction of bitumen. Contact:,

What is oil, anyway?
Humans have successfully sequenced DNA but we still don’t understand the chemical structure and behaviour of the largest molecules in oil.  Supported by Imperial Oil and Syncrude Canada, unlocking this mystery is the theme of Dr. Gray’s research.
Contact: Dr. Murray Gray, Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Alberta, Scientific Director for The Centre for Oil Sands Innovation, NSERC-Imperial Oil Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Upgrading,, 780.492.7965

Is it like yogurt, cheesecake or brick?
Drs. Lipsett and Rivard have developed robotic tooling techniques to measure the strength of tailing ponds soils. A prototype tool with remote sensing capability will be ready in 2011. They are looking for commercialization partners. Contact: Dr. Mike Lipsett, Mechanical Engineering, University of Alberta,, 403.220.6691 • Dr. Benoit Rivard, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta,, 780.492.9494

Helmholtz-Alberta Alliance
Another important example of research collaboration is the Helmholtz-Alberta Alliance, which brings together, in a tightly integrated structure, researchers from the University of Alberta and the Helmholtz Association in Germany. Initial five-year funding has come from the Helmholtz Association with $9 million and the Alberta government with $25 million. The alliance has about 50 scientists on both sides working on different aspects, 40 of them full time. They include graduate students and masters students and some researchers who are specifically hired to work on this project which will focus on six major areas: remediation and recovery of land disturbed by open pit mining operations; using geothermal energy instead of steam produced by natural gas to heat the bitumen; water treatment and management; carbon capture and storage; extracting toxins out of emissions; and upgrading bitumen. Contact:,

National Research Council—IRAP
The federal government also makes an important contribution to research for the oil sands. The National Research Council, through its IRAP program, is supporting several projects to develop technology applicable to oil sands. Also, the NRC collaborates with the Institute for Chemical Process and Environmental Technology (ICPET) to fund research in technologies specifically pertaining to environmental aspects that reduce water and energy consumption and measure air contaminants from the upstream sectors. This project addresses three areas of the value chain for oil sands: bitumen chemistry; bitumen recovery and processing; and fuel chemistry and emissions in the context of sustainability in the oil sands industry (a downstream focus). The NRC-ICPET Oil Sands Project collaborates with Syncrude through CONRAD (Canadian Oilsands Network for R&D). Contact:

National Centre for Upgrading Technology (NCUT)
The federal government collaborates with the Alberta government in funding the National Centre for Upgrading Technology, a unit of the federal government’s Canmet ENERGY. Located just south of Edmonton, in Devon, NCUT employs about 130 scientists, engineers, technologists, managers and support staff, who provide solutions to industry, advice to government policy makers and regulators, and provide Canadians with relevant information on oil sands and heavy oil issues. Areas of particular focus include: extraction and tailings; water management; multiphase systems; bioprocessing oil sands; upgrading oil sands and heavy oil; and future fuels and emissions. Contact: