About 80 percent of Alberta’s oil sands reserves are buried so deep beneath the earth’s surface they can only be recovered through in situ, meaning “in place,” extraction technology. In situ operations use water to produce high-temperature steam that is injected into the reservoir through an injector well to melt the bitumen. The warm bitumen and the condensed steam flows into the production well as an emulsion and is brought to the surface. As the steam cools, it turns back into water, which is brought to the surface along with the bitumen. The water is separated from the bitumen and channelled through complex water treatment facilities to remove impurities. The treated water can then be recycled and used to produce steam many times over. In situ operators are looking for ways to reduce the high cost of water treatment, improve the reliability of recycling technology and reduce their water footprint. These shared explorations prompted companies to collaborate on plans for a Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC).
The $165-million WTDC will allow operators to test drive more technologies than each could on their own while sharing the risks and costs. This collaboration will allow operators to speed the development and implementation of new water treatment technologies. It will also shorten the current eight-year timeframe required to field test technologies and move them to commercial application, leading to an accelerated return on investment. Most importantly, it removes the risk of testing technologies from a production plant to a dedicated purpose-built facility.
The $165-million WTDC is scheduled to open in 2019 and will be attached to Suncor’s Firebag in situ operations, which uses Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). Attaching the WTDC to Firebag will allow the facility to test new technologies on fluids with the same physical-chemical characteristics and elevated temperatures and pressures that occur at commercial SAGD in situ operations. This will also simulate the dynamic process changes that occur at SAGD facilities, allowing for the accurate evaluation of process-upsets on new technologies.
Since it is a dedicated test facility, the WTDC overcomes the many barriers of conducting field tests at commercial production facilities. Commercial facilities are not designed to accommodate the testing of water treatment technologies.
By improving how water is treated in in situ operations, the WTDC can further reduce the amount of water used, increase recycling rates and improve overall energy efficiency.