Fort Saskatchewan — A Calgary company is developing new technology to clean heavy oil that could vastly reduce the cost and emissions involved in producing Alberta bitumen.
“We take the dirty out of dirty oil,” Field Upgrading Ltd. president Neil Camarta said Wednesday during a tour of his firm’s Fort Saskatchewan 10-barrel-a-day pilot plant.
The facility, which opened last December, cleans feedstock by mixing it in a tank with molten sodium, which reacts with the sulphur, heavy metals and acids, and removes them.
One key innovation is the system of recovering and recycling the elemental sodium, which is only supplied by a few companies in the world, by passing material through electrified ceramic plates.
The process has no direct emissions of sulphur or nitrogen oxide, two serious forms of air pollution — some may be produced generating the electricity — and about half the greenhouse gases of conventional upgrading.
It’s also less expensive. Building a 10,000 barrel-a-day plant would cost about $300 million, roughly half the budget for a conventional facility, and the $10-a-barrel operating cost is also half what it now takes to run such operations, Camarta said.
The main customer would be international ship companies, which burn about four million barrels a day of heavy oil that has a sulphur content thousands of times higher than regular gasoline.
The industry is under pressure to sharply reduce the amount of sulphur in marine fuel by 2020, and upgraded Alberta bitumen could be sent by rail car to coastal terminals and pumped directly into ships with no need to go through a refinery, Camarta said.
“Very low emissions, very simple process, low capital intensity, low operating cost, and this great market,” he said.
“It’s a great opportunity for us … This has a line of sight of taking Alberta bitumen that folks kind of worry about and clean it up and use it to clean up the planet, in a way.”
Field has spent $30 million on lab work, technology patents and building the pilot plant. About half that money came from the federal and Alberta governments, while the private investors are mainly from Alberta.
The next step being planned is a 2,500 barrel-a-day demonstration refinery, likely in the Edmonton region, which could start construction next year and would cost about $75 million.
The equipment would rest on 10 skids, each four metres by four metres by 16 metres. Future commercial upgraders would be a multiple of this size so they could be set up easily.
“That building block is a good scale and allows us to roll out quickly, so we don’t have to build one big plant every five years.”
The test facility sits next to a pilot plant to produce hydrogen from various types of carbon set up in 2013 by Western Hydrogen, a company owned by Camarta and partner Guy Turcotte.
But the drastic drop in the price of natural gas — from which hydrogen is typically derived — means there’s little market for the product even though the technology works, and the pair have shifted their focus to the upgrader.
Camarta, a former senior executive with Shell, Petro-Canada and Suncor, and Turcotte, chairman of Field Upgrading, have long experience in the oil industry and know success is never guaranteed.
“In our game, you don’t want to bet on one horse,” Camarta said.
“It’s a risky business taking something that’s an idea in some Guy’s brain and commercializing it.”