March 09, 2022 2 years ago

Aesthetic image of black oil barrels.

When bitumen is recovered from below the surface, Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) is the conventional commercial method. The current process is energy and water intensive, and research into alternative processes is ongoing.

With approximately $1 million in funding from Canada’s Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), InnoTech Alberta will optimize the process for using a novel solvent, dimethylether (DME), in in-situ bitumen recovery. The technology was initially developed in experimental studies completed by InnoTech under the AACI Research Program. DME is highly soluble in both water and bitumen, which makes for an ideal recovery option. It mixes with bitumen in the reservoir much faster than other solvents do, and at much lower temperatures. This technology injects moisturized DME vapor into the reservoir at only 80 °C, compared to SAGD’s > 200 °C, using 86% less energy to yield the same results. The economic performance between the two technologies is comparable and switching to DME would not increase costs.

There are more than 130 billion barrels of in-situ recoverable bitumen in Alberta and using DME for bitumen extraction would have significant environmental affects. The DME in-situ bitumen recovery process would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 86% and water consumption by 79%. DME is a promising technology for achieving significant environmental improvement economically.

DME has significant commercial appeal compared to other SAGD alternatives because it requires smaller amounts to assist with bitumen transfer. This results in more valuable bitumen and less solvent making it through pipelines to refineries. 87.5% of injected DME is recovered and sold, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of solvent refineries required to store or dispose of the solvent.

The project will provide oil sands operators with the technical, environmental, and economic information they need to assess the viability and feasibility before proceeding to a commercial testing phase. The work will be performed by InnoTech at its Millwoods research facility in Edmonton Alberta, with technical support from industry partners.