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.
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 sands. By replacing that water with an alternative solvent, we have the potential to significantly reduce tailings, costs, and our GHG emissions. We have progressed early engineering of the field demonstration unit and technology work continues with a number of partners to 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
In early 2018, we announced we are proceeding with the phased implementation of autonomous haulage systems (AHS) at company-operated mines. The North Steepbank Extension mine at Base Plant reached a full autonomous haulage operation in April 2018. AHS implementation began at the Fort Hills site in 2019, and is projected to reach full autonomous haulage operation in 2020. AHS continues to be a key part of Suncor’s strategy and part of our digital transformation journey and with full deployment at Base Plant it will be the largest investment in autonomous vehicles in the world.
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. They also reduce interaction between people and equipment which decreases incident rates and injury potential. Trucks used to support Suncor’s operations are designed to operate in either an autonomous or manual mode.
While Suncor is the first company in Canada to deploy the equipment, this technology is used commercially in mining environments across Australia and Chile.
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.
The implementation of AHS will change roles and required skill sets for some employees at Suncor's operations over time. A staged approach to deployment will allow the company to deliberately focus on each mining area and apply lessons from one to the next.
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.