Converting Oil Sands to Usable Energy

Recently, a press release announced Emerson’s selection on a $2.6 billion (USD) oil sands project in Northern Alberta, Canada.

The project team includes Emerson’s Hydrocarbon and Energy Industry Center and Emerson’s local business partner, Spartan Controls, both based in Calgary. Spartan Controls also has an office closer to the oil sands region in Edmonton. This team will supply engineering and project management, automation commissioning, and ongoing support services. Over the past several years, they have had experience with several other oil sands projects.

These Canadian oil sands (a.k.a. tar sands) hold known oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia. Unlike those reserves, it is quite a bit more difficult to process bitumen, a molasses-like viscous oil into feedstocks for refineries to turn into gasoline, diesel and other sources of usable energy. With this project and many others, total Canadian oil production is projected to double from 2.5 million barrels per day (MBPD) to 4.9 MBPD by 2020

The process revolves around an upgrader, which changes the bitumen into synthetic crude oil. The Oil Sands Discover Centre describes the process well in this Upgrading Fact Sheet. It opens with this nice summary:

Upgrading is the process that changes bitumen into synthetic crude oil. Bitumen, like crude oil, is a very complex mixture of chemicals (a hydrocarbon with chains in excess of 2,000 molecules). It also has a lot of carbon in relation to hydrogen. Some upgrading processes remove carbon, while others add hydrogen or change molecular structures. Upgrading also involves sorting bitumen into its component parts and then using them to produce a range of additional products and byproducts.

The large oil sands projects require quite a team effort among the energy companies, Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contractors, automation suppliers and their local sales and service organizations to execute these large projects as efficiently as possible. And, in the words the energy company’s president a “consistent and durable process” is the goal once the upgrader process is in full operation. This is especially important in the cold, harsh winter climate of Northern Alberta. For this project, the upgrader has a total processing capability of 231,000 BPD and construction expected to begin after regulatory approval this fall.

With higher crude oil prices, more projects like these become economically viable to do, to help the supply catch up with the global demand.

There is plenty of work to be done and many career opportunities in Calgary, Alberta if you want to join in all this fun!

Posted Thursday, June 7th, 2007 under Project Services.

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