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Innovation & Technology Rush in the Oil Sands

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Oil sands operators and suppliers alike are trying to find ways to reduce operations costs and cut emissions By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Dozens of emerging technologies for almost every facet of oil sands production could be paving the way for solutions to the most significant environmental and operational challenges faced today. In fact, according to a study by the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), these emerging technologies are establishing a foundation for the industry to reduce its operational costs by 40 per cent and its emissions by up to 80 per cent. There is an innovation rush in Alberta’s oil sands and the impacts could be far reaching.

An innovative environment

“Most of us think of innovation in terms of technology but innovation can happen in lots of different ways,” said Dan Wicklum, chief executive of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), formed in 2012 by 10 oil companies that account for 90 per cent of oil sands production. “The COSIA model itself is probably one of the biggest innovations in the oil sector.”

Instead of treating innovation as a means to gain a competitive advantage, the COSIA companies collaborate in developing new technologies to improve their environmental and operational performance, said Wicklum. They have already shared $1.4 billion worth of intellectual property for some 985 technologies and innovations. Two years ago, COSIA also launched the international US$20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE for CO2 emission-reduction technologies that can convert CO2 into usable products.

“A good innovation system needs good people, good ideas and good funding, but it also needs the testing infrastructure,” said Wicklum. To this end, COSIA partnered with the federal and Alberta governments to create the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) in Calgary, which opened in May. Built adjacent to the Shepard Energy Centre, which provides flue gas emissions from a natural gas-fired power plant, the new facility enables innovators with the capabilities to test, refine and scale-up technologies for commercialization that convert CO2 into usable products.

In April, COSIA announced the 10 finalists for the Carbon XPRIZE. Each will receive a US$500,000 award to take their technologies to a commercialization-ready stage. Five of the finalists are focused on gas-based CO2 conversion and will be the ACCTC’s first tenants. (The teams focused on converting coal-based CO2 will go to Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center.) Using CO2, Carbicrete turns steel slag industrial waste into cement-free concrete, CERT creates value-added fuels and feedstocks, Newlight fabricates bioplastics, Carbon Upcycling Technologies builds graphitic nanoparticles and graphene derivatives, and C2CNT manufactures nanotubes. Along with the finalists in Wyoming, they will be scaling up their technologies for commercialization as they compete for one of the two $7.5 million grand prizes, which will be awarded in 2020.


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Autonomous Haulage Trucks, West Angelas minesite; credit Christian Sprogoe Photography

Autonomous haul systems

With oil sands haulage fleets as big as they are, the potential for automation is obvious, but its implementation has demanded creative thinking to contend with the difficult conditions in the region.

For Komatsu, which has worked with Suncor since 2013 on adapting the OEM’s autonomous haulage systems (AHS) that it has rolled out in the Pilbara iron range of Western Australia, the oil sands posed unique challenges, namely the cold winters and the soft underfooting of the ore bodies. Winterizing and the development of a multi-trajectory system to prevent the trucks from damaging the roads resolved the challenges.

Suncor is planning to add 150 AHS units at its oil sands mines over the next six years, starting with the North Steepbank mine. It is not the only oil sands mining company considering the new technology. Canadian Natural Resources is planning a small pilot project for 2019.

Komatsu’s AHS combines autonomous trucks with manned support equipment and shovels. “We have five layers of safety to allow humans to interact with the autonomous trucks,” said Brian Yureskes, director of Komatsu’s business development for the oil sands. “Some of those are virtual layers of safety so the system is able to see and anticipate what humans are doing around the trucks. Some are physical layers such as lasers and radar. The final layer is that every single piece of equipment that is manned and operated in the area has a big red button that, when you push it, stops all the autonomous trucks.”

According to Scott Schellenberg, senior manager of AHS for SMS Equipment, the Canadian distributor for Komatsu, the autonomous technology itself has increased safety. “Humans working around the autonomous haulers can see on their screens where the trucks are and know where they are headed versus with a human driving the truck,” he said.

The digital oil sands

The oil sands are increasingly adopting machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies, said Dinara Millington, vice-president of research at CERI. “I’m noticing it’s happening faster now that these technologies have been in the commercial space for a little while,” she said.

Marty Reed, CEO of Evok Innovations, a partnership between Canada’s oil and gas companies and the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, points to two innovative companies with technologies that have powerful benefits for the oil and gas sector as well as the oil sands. One is Kelvin, which has an artificial intelligence system that has been deployed in BP’s oil and gas fields in Wamsutter, Wyoming. There, hundreds of inexpensive sensors have been installed in the wells where they gather data that is transmitted via the cloud to powerful computers. These identify patterns and form predictions, which are used to create optimization tweaks that are sent back down to the controls in the field.

“The days of one shift coming in and tweaking all the dials is going to go away,” said Reed. “Computers do it better.”

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