joe spa

Oil sand treated to the SPA

Apr 18, 2018

Syncrude has discovered that including a common additive in our process can improve production and environmental performance.

Faced with the challenge of mining oil sand with lower bitumen and increased fines, Syncrude’s Research and Development team came up with the idea to test Sodium Citrate during the Extraction phase to improve bitumen recovery rates.

Sodium Citrate is the salt that comes from citric acid and is commonly used as a preservative or food additive.

Lead by researchers Jun Long and Joe Gu, the team found that adding a small amount of Sodium Citrate solution to our hydrotransport feed (pipeline where oil sand is mixed with warm water to initiate the separation of bitumen from sand and water) dramatically improved bitumen recovery, especially for lower grade ore. Now referred to as Secondary Process Aid, or SPA, Sodium Citrate is showing benefits beyond just improving recovery. The innovative approach is also generating significant environmental benefits including less bitumen being lost to tailings, reduced water use and lower per barrel energy intensity during the separation process. In short, we have to mine less to produce the same number of barrels.

oil sand close up

(Oil sand is a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen. Image courtesy of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.)

Syncrude first tested the idea in 2014 to examine the effectiveness of SPA on the extraction process. In 2015, the team looked at what levels of recovery they could achieve. The results were very promising and the green light was given to construct a larger full scale pilot plant at our Mildred Lake site north of Fort McMurray. Designed, constructed and commissioned in just eight months, the SPA pilot saw immediate benefits the first day it was turned on.

SPA tank lift2

(A SPA tank is lifted into place during project construction.)

“Because we’re getting better recovery and increased throughput from the use of SPA, we can make as much bitumen in 23 hours as we used to in 24 hours,” says Trevor Houtstra, Instrumentation Advisor. “Essentially, we’re getting an extra hour of production each day.”

The pilot paid for itself in the first week of operation and is anticipated to generate significant benefits over the next 10 years.