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Syncrude set to mark 55 years of advancing oil sands science

Jul 17, 2019

The Syncrude Research and Development Centre in Edmonton is celebrating its 25th birthday in 2019. While truly a time for celebration, this milestone is also an opportunity to reflect on R&D's contributions to advancing science, technologies and innovation behind Canada’s oil sands industry over more than five decades.

Incorporated in 1964, Syncrude’s only operating department was Research & Development. The departmentconsisted  of a small group of geologists, engineers, and scientists who worked out of a former oxygen plant in northeast Edmonton. Their initial goal was perfecting the hot water separation method of bitumen extraction from the oil sands – a process pioneered by Dr. Karl Clark in the 1930s. To do this, they used a semi-continuous research pilot capable of processing 120 pounds of oil sand per hour. Today, the R&D Centre is commissioning the latest generation Extraction Pilot Plant that will process 4,000 kilograms per hour.

It was an industry in its infancy working in a unique environment to invent, test and implement solutions for mining oil sand, separating bitumen and upgrading it to synthetic crude oil.

“There wasn’t any off-the-shelf technology back then,” says Mal Carroll, Manager, Research & Development. “The team was really starting from scratch and writing the book on oil sands research.”

One of the most important publications developed in the early days was the Syncrude Analytical Methods. These methods became the accepted standard for industry, government and universities to measure and analyze the components and properties of the oil sands. Many other innovations followed, leading to the 215 patents gracing the walls of Syncrude’s Edmonton Research Centre, along with thousands of reports and publications to document the lessons learned along the way.

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Syncrude’s in-house expertise and collaborations with academia, industry and researchers around the world has resulted in more than 200 patents for technologies applied to the oil sands.

This work has led to major advancements and game-changing technologies for the industry. Continuous improvement efforts have produced significant changes in processes fromrom yield and recovery improvements, to extending the life of mining and process equipment to reducing energy and water intensity to hydrotransport and innovative land reclamation. 

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Syncrude moved to a new Research and Development Centre at the Edmonton Research Park in 1994. At the time its new equipment included a pilot plant that could process 2,000 pounds of oil sand per hour into bitumen froth. A twinned pilot plant recently added to the facility will double the amount of oil sand that can be processed.

Syncrude made a commitment to R&D in 1994 with the opening of its new Research and Development Centre in the heart of Edmonton’s Research Park. It signaled Syncrude’s continued desire to be the driving force behind responsible oil sands development through innovation and by pushing the limits of science and technology.

Syncrude knew they couldn’t do this on their own so they formed partnerships and agreements with government agencies, academia, industry and researchers around the world to collaborate on projects and applied fundamental research.

The company also actively participates in technology development through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) where they are involved in joint industry projects towards improving reclamation, tailings management and water use, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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More than half of Syncrude's R&D investments are directed towards environmental initiatives.

Syncrude is one of the top 50 R&D spenders in Canada, with an average annual budget of over $65 million – with more than half being directed towards environmental initiatives. Our R&D investments of more than $1.5 billion over the past 50 years have generated $35 billion of value to the company.

As Syncrude has evolved, so have the contributions of the R&D team. Their work began with learning how to get the oil from oil sand. Its focus then turned to the reliability of the equipment that works under some of the most extreme conditions in the world. Ground-breaking innovation led to technologies that changed the industry, including low-energy extraction and hydrotransport. And since its early days, Syncrude created technology essential for the responsible development and closure of land disturbed by mining, focused on tailings management, reclamation and water use.

“I can’t think of a single organization in North America that has collaborated as often as Syncrude has to advance the science surrounding responsible development of Alberta’s oil sands,” says Mal. “Without the R&D Team’s contributions over the last 55 years, the industry would be decades behind rather than at the cutting edge.”

Technological innovation is critical to Syncrude and many of the solutions begin with the R&D Team. Innovation and collaboration were the focus of the last 25 years in Syncrude’s Research and Development Centre. The next 25 years will see continued evolution and commitment to developing world-class technologies for the oil sands industry.