Research Themes

1. Extraction

Current technology uses large volumes of water to ‘extract’ the bitumen from the oil sands ― an advanced version of Dr. Clark’s hot water process, and which actually emulates the early First Nations technique of using boiling water to liberate the bitumen. However, the current extraction technologies generate tailings ― water-suspended particles ― mostly of clay, minerals and metals ― that are in concentrations and do not allow re-use in the extraction process. These tailings are a risk to the environment and are isolated in ponds to allow settling. IOSI supports research leading to water-free processing of oil sands, including technologies that use substantially smaller volumes of water. A significant challenge is identifying and understanding the behaviour of the bitumen and its interactions with the minerals and water present in the oil sands ― right down to the molecular level.

2. Online Instrumentation for Oilsands

This is a new theme for IOSI, one where we will focus our efforts in areas that will benefit oil sands operations and efficiencies on an ongoing basis. This theme will look at the development of novel sensors or adaptation of existing sensors from other industries for the rapid real-time online measurements of pertinent operational parameters in oil sands extraction and froth treatment process streams. These sensors must be capable of maintaining performance while operating in a challenging process environment such as streams with high solids contents, bitumen fouling, heterogeneous flows, erosive flows, etc.  Examples of such operational parameters include particle size distribution with capabilities to detect ultrafines (less than 0.5 microns) even when mixed with water and/or bitumen; mineralogical composition including clay minerals; tailings stream density (water, clay, bitumen); asphaltene content; viscosity of multiphase flow system; water chemistry (pH, soluble ions); froth quality; slurry composition (water, bitumen, solids, clays); and ore composition by non-contact methods.

3. Product Cleaning and Partial Upgrading

Processing of the bitumen, or “Upgrading”, adds to its value, enables transportation by pipeline, and makes it more attractive to many petroleum refineries. The current technologies use heat to break up the largest molecules in the bitumen, and high-pressure processing with catalysts and hydrogen to remove the sulphur and other contaminants. These technologies require very large capital investments, and give significant emissions of greenhouse gases. IOSI supports research on new approaches to separation of desirable from undesirable components, reaction of bitumen feeds, catalysis, and production of value-added products. The emphasis of the research is to improve value and at the same time reduce energy consumption and the release of greenhouse gases. The theme includes fundamental research on the molecular structure of bitumen components, on new catalysts for processing bitumen and derived distillates, and new reaction pathways.

4. Tailings Process Fundamentals

While water is a low-cost medium for extracting the bitumen from the oil sands, the by-product water contains clays from the oil sands ore that become suspended in that water as ‘tailings’. The tailings are mostly clay, but minerals and metals are also present in the water in concentrations. To date, the tailings have been stored in ponds to allow those components to slowly settle to the bottom before allowing the ‘clean’ water to be reintroduced to the environment. The oil sands industry faces new regulations that require more rapid treatment of the tailings to return them back to the mine, giving a significant reduction in the volume of tailings associated with each mine.

IOSI research is working toward new methods for the rapid dewatering of tailings, as well as integrating the extraction process with tailings management. In the future, the industry will need to treat the water released from tailings and mining sites into the environment and new processes are needed to remove the water-soluble components from the oil sands to enable the safe release of this process water.

The oil sands industry has placed such a high priority on new technology for handling tailings that the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium (OSTC) was established in March 2011 to foster innovation and collaboration in research and development relating to oil sands tailings. Each company is sharing tailings research and technology and collaborating on future tailings research and development. IOSI’s efforts are one of the contributions of Imperial Oil to this collaborative effort; the overall activities of the OSTC are now incorporated into Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) as the Tailings Environmental Priority Area.