Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) has embraced the challenge of easing the environmental impact of oil sands production.
The federal not-for-profit foundation, which finances and supports the development and demonstration of clean technologies, helps to make oil sands projects less costly to operate, while improving yields and lessening their effect on the environment, says Vicky Sharpe, president and CEO of SDTC.
“Canada’s economy has long been built on natural resources,” she says. “The oil sands are no exception, and will continue to play a role as a cornerstone of the economy. Technology solutions from SDTC-supported cleantech companies help increase the volume and reduce the costs of oil sands production, while alleviating environmental impacts.”
Dr. Sharpe says that, to date, SDTC’s portfolio of 24 cleaner fossil fuels projects has a total value of $250 million. The oil sands industry plays an active role by contributing directly to SDTC-supported projects, she explains, as it searches for technologies that reduce water use, increase efficiency and lower costs.
For example, she says, Titanium Corporation Inc., which processes waste material, treats water before it reaches tailings ponds to recover crude oil, valuable minerals and reusable water.
Scott Nelson, president and CEO of Titanium Corporation, says a $5-million grant from SDTC was instrumental in supporting a recent $15-million demonstration pilot program for three oil sands operators.
The process was utilized for oil sands extraction, he says, and involved adding solvent to the mixture of bitumen (the heavy, thick and sticky form of crude oil), sand and water to remove final waste materials. Currently, the waste tailings from the extraction process are transferred into ponds, with environmental consequences.
“Our technology intercepts the tailings stream before it is discharged into ponds, recovering lost commodities and reducing the environmental impacts,” he notes, adding that the technology is now proven and in the process of commercialization and implementation.
Dr. Sharpe says that some SDTC-supported companies have developed solutions to maintain pipeline integrity, while others, such as N-Solv Corporation, reduce the energy required for bitumen extraction.
N-Solv’s pilot plant is located at a Suncor Energy Inc. site near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Its patented in situ technology uses warm solvent to extract bitumen from oil sands efficiently, sustainably and economically, says John Nenniger, CEO of N-Solv.
This is a significant improvement over the traditional steam-assisted oil extraction processes, which use water to soften, then recover, the heavy oil, he says.
“We do not use any water, and our greenhouse gas emissions from extraction are about one-seventh of those using the steam processes,” Mr. Nenniger notes. “However, the good news doesn’t stop there. Our oil quality is significantly higher than the steam processes, and also reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the upgrading part of the lifecycle.”
Mr. Nenniger says it took 12 years to get sufficient funding for the pilot project. He is quick to credit SDTC – which provided $10-million – with helping to bring the project to fruition.
“SDTC made an enormously important contribution in helping move this technology from lab to the field pilot,” he adds. “SDTC is about leadership and taking responsibility, about maximizing profits while minimizing environmental footprints.”
Dr. Sharpe says there is room to increase SDTC’s role in the oil sands, particularly as more reserves are found and developed.
“Cleantech can find solutions to collectively bring those resources to the surface, with techniques that lower both water use and emissions per barrel,” she says. “As public concern grows over pipeline transportation, cleantech is finding ways to improve pipeline monitoring and avoid problems.”
She says SDTC’s portfolio of companies will continue to grow and refine their technologies, and will soon find their way into the next wave of efficient, sustainable oil sands operations.