Suncor is committed to developing technologies that will allow us to produce crude oil from our oil sands projects at a supply cost and with an environmental footprint (production through refining and consumption) at or below that of conventional oil. This could be achieved in part through the selective decarbonization of our oil sands products.
What does decarbonization mean?
Bitumen is a complex mixture of compounds, including heavy hydrocarbon components that require significant upgrading and refining before they can be used as gasoline, diesel, or other fuels. Upgrading refers to processes that increase the ratio of hydrogen to carbon in these heavy components; one way to achieve this is by rejecting a portion of the carbon from the bitumen. This ‘decarbonization’ could result in:
- higher value bitumen-derived crude oil while simultaneously permanently removing carbon, sulphur and impurities from the global fuel system
- less diluent required for transportation and decreases the downstream processing hydrogen and energy requirements resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions
- increased pipeline capacity
Decarbonization is a strategic focus area for technology development in Suncor – reliable, less energy-intensive processes will be needed to realize the benefits. An example of this is our paraffinic froth treatment process we have deployed at our Fort Hills mine. The result could be a higher value crude oil delivered at a lower cost and with a lower environmental impact from wells to wheels.
Asphaltenes to Carbon Fibre
Asphaltenes to Carbon fibre is a Suncor-led project that develops carbon fibre products from recovered bitumen-derived asphaltenes. The asphaltenes come from residual bitumen in our barrels that is normally converted to petroleum coke in the upgrading and refining process, or considered industrial waste from our operations. We can remove the asphaltenes from various sources along the bitumen processing path, and through our technology, potentially develop it into a range of carbon fibre products. Carbon fibre from bitumen-derived asphaltenes is estimated to improve the value of this part of the bitumen product can potentially have significantly smaller environmental impacts than carbon fibre produced from other sources, including petrochemicals, agriculture and forestry. The high strength and stiffness of carbon fibre, coupled with low density and high corrosion resistance, make composite materials that incorporate carbon fibre functionally for use in electric vehicles, transportation, infrastructure, construction, and consumer products sectors.
Through funding from Alberta Innovates, we’re advancing the research and design process for the development of this technology.
Carbon capture and storage
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a GHG emission reduction alternative that captures the carbon dioxide (CO2) created primary during the combustion of fossil fuels in different industries (e.g. power generation, oil and gas, cement, steel, etc.) and stores it in underground formations safely and permanently, preventing emissions from entering the atmosphere. CCS is commercially available and has been deployed at scale. One of the main challenges is the cost of capture, however, technology development in this space is focused on reducing costs. Additional infrastructure is also needed to transport CO2 for long term storage.
In 2020, Suncor invested in Svante, a company out of Vancouver, B.C., using new adsorption-based technology that uses a solid material to remove CO2 from flue gas to reduce industrial emissions at a lower cost than traditional methods of capturing CO2. With support from Suncor and other companies and government, Svante can continue developing its technology to capture CO2 from heavy-emitting industries like cement, steel, and oil and gas production at a lower cost than current methods.
Paraffinic froth treatment
Fort Hills uses paraffinic froth treatment (PFT) for secondary extraction. This process selectively removes the low value, heavy fraction of the mined bitumen and produces a lighter, higher quality-bitumen that requires less diluent to transport and requires no additional upgrading prior to the downstream processing. The oil sands are the only place in the world that alters the carbon content of oil at the production source prior to sending to the market.
Through partnerships with equipment suppliers and research organizations, we are pursuing new technologies to reduce the need for water in bitumen extraction from mining operations. Currently, warm water is used to separate bitumen from the sand. By replacing that water with an alternative solvent, we have the potential to significantly eliminate tailings, reduce costs, and GHG emissions. We have increased the size and scope of our non-aqueous extraction pilots with a number of partners helping advance the technology. We are working with COANDA Research and Development, InnoTech Alberta, CanmetENERGY, Devon, and Exergy Solutions, as well as several academic institutions.
Autonomous haulage systems
Autonomous haulage systems (AHS) continue to be a key part of Suncor’s strategy.
Suncor will continue its phased implementation of AHS at our operated mine sites. The North Steepbank Extension mine reached full autonomous haulage operation in April 2018. The Fort Hills site began its implementation in 2019.
Autonomous haul trucks operate using GPS, wireless communication and perceptive technologies. The trucks operate predictably and employ a suite of safety features like prescribed route mapping and obstacle detection systems. Evaluations have shown the technology offers many advantages over existing truck and shovel operations, including enhanced safety performance, better operating efficiency and lower operating costs.
Shovel Virtual Coach
To improve the operational performance and productivity of our shovels, we introduced the Shovel Virtual Coach, a digital technology that equips our shovel operators with real-time data. This technology enables operators to make immediate decisions and adjustments by showing them accurate data of the tonnage of every truck load, load time performance, and reliability events that contribute to shovel damage.
Immediate access to these metrics will enable shovel operators to improve, in real time, payload compliance, load time and reduce truck delays to maximize performance.
We began Shovel Virtual Coach deployment at Fort Hills in 2020 and seven shovels will implement this technology by the end of 2021. Touchscreen tablets will be mounted in the cab of the shovel for safe and easy accessibility by our shovel operators.
The TonyC analytical product was developed to improve bitumen extraction, data collection and performance, both now and in the future. The product is used by the control room operators, supported by business translators, to evaluate current operating conditions and make recommendations for various set points to improve plant performance. The product delivers value by enabling operators to optimize the current operating conditions to increase bitumen production, while at the same time driving new learning and training for control room operators.
TonyC was first rolled out at our Millennium Ore Processing Plant in 2020, followed by the Steep Bank Ore Processing Plant.
Froth treatment tailings
Froth treatment tailings management
Bitumen production from mineable oil sands consists of a number of process steps that increasingly improve the purity of the bitumen stream. One of these steps – called ‘froth treatment’ – uses a light hydrocarbon to help remove most of the remaining water and minerals from the bitumen froth generated in the primary extraction circuit. This step makes the resulting ‘diluted bitumen’ suitable for upgrading.
The removed water and minerals become part of a tailings stream known as froth treatment tailings (FTT). The FTT consists of water, sand, various minerals and residual hydrocarbons. The mineral phase consists of various compounds, which include regular sand, a variety of rare earth elements (REEs), and other minerals. The hydrocarbons are present in the form of bitumen and trace light hydrocarbon.
Safe and effective management of this FTT stream - both short and long-term - requires that any potential revenue value of the FTT stream is protected. At the same time we need to ensure that the material is stored in a way that is compatible with long term closure outcomes.
Through COSIA, Suncor is actively involved in various programs to measure the environmental impact of FTT, and to develop strategies for safely storing the material. These programs are an example of successful industrial collaboration on environmental performance improvement.
Suncor is further developing ways to use the natural bio-activity observed in the tailings containment areas to mitigate the impact of the FTT constituents. Several process options are also being evaluated to recover FTT constituents that could cause long-term geochemical effects prior to placement of the material in the final closure landscape.
In parallel with the activities around long-term closure for FTT related materials, Suncor continues to evaluate methodologies to unlock the economic potential of the valuable minerals in these streams. Many daily use items like rechargeable batteries and magnets; require elements that are naturally enriched in the FTT stream. If processes could be developed to recover these elements cost-effectively, then this could shift the thinking on FTT from it being a waste stream to it being a potential resource for several decades.