Cameras and an algorithm improve accuracy of oilsands process formerly done manually
A digital camera and some clever mathematics are allowing Suncor Energy to recover hundreds of barrels of bitumen a day that once went into a tailings pond.
The technique, devised by Edmonton technology firm Matrikon Inc. using research from University of Alberta scientists, could soon be used by other units at the oil firm's Fort McMurray-area operation, and eventually by other oilsands processors.
"Suncor was able to do this without changing their process. There was no extra energy needed and no physical contact with the bitumen," said Tim Black of Matrikon's products group.
We could just look through a window in the side of the separation tank with a camera and digitize the information. The trick was to have the math which could do the calculations in real time, and make adjustments."
Matrikon's technique works in a separation cell, the large vessel where oilsands is mixed with hot water. The bitumen and air form a frothy layer floating on top of the water, sands and clays, and skimmers remove the froth for processing into oil.
Capturing all the froth is key to full recovery of the oil, since any froth missed will end up in the tailings pond.
The best way to skim off the froth is to hold the water level in the tank steady. But with oilsands and water being constantly fed into the tank, the surface resembles a roiling sea rather than a placid lake.
So skimming is akin to trying to take the surface layer off a pot of boiling soup, with the pot also moving erratically up and down.
Companies use sensors to guide operators, who manually control pumps in an effort to keep the surface as calm as possible.
"We identified an opportunity for improvement here," said Shelley Powell, Suncor's vice-president of extraction.
"In primary extraction, with these large gravity-separation vessels, our staff were making constant adjustments with the pumps by looking through 'sight glasses' (portholes in the side of the tank)," she said.
"The digital camera is focused on the interface between the foam and water, not just the foam. The whole process is driven by an algorithm (a mathematical set of rules used for calculation) to adjust the pumps in real time," Powell said.
The result has been "several hundred" extra barrels of bitumen recovered each day. Matrikon said the new system has seen the amount of bitumen going into the tailings pond reduced by half for the unit, but Powell can't confirm that figure.
"We have gotten an economic payback (with the improved recovery), but the environmental improvement is very important to us," she said.
The success of the trial on one unit means a second, sister unit will soon get the equipment. Powell expects remaining separators to be fitted later.
Black said Matrikon can help firms in many industries make significant changes in their production problems because its staff can stand back and can look at the big picture.
"Today engineers in plants are spending the majority of their time filling in paperwork, looking at compliance-based things. They can become compliance-driven, which leaves little time for innovation and improvement, what I call making a step change," Black said.
Mike Brown, Matrikon's vice-president of solutions, would like to see more technology projects given the publicity they deserve.
"NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a co-sponsor of the Matrikon-Suncor project) gives lots of money for research, but why aren't the stories coming out where people are tackling industrial problems and succeeding?
"There is a value beyond academic research, where tax dollars are being applied wisely to solve real problems," he said. "In this case we have taken some interesting research from the U of A and applied it to Suncor's separation-cell problem, and this is a great example of co-operation and applied research."
Reprinted with the express permission of: "Edmonton Journal Inc.", a Canwest Partnership.