Innovative Technology Improves Upgrading Process For Unconventional Oil Resources

July 30, 2013

Washington, D.C. – An innovative oil-upgrading technology that can increase the economics of unconventional petroleum resources has been developed under a U.S. Department of Energy -funded project.

The promising technology, developed by Ceramatec of Salt Lake City, Utah, and managed by the Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, has been licensed to Western Hydrogen of Calgary for upgrading bitumen or heavy oil from Canada. A new company, Field Upgrading (Calgary, Alberta), has been formed dedicated to developing and commercializing the technology.

Heavy oil is crude oil that is viscous and requires thermally enhanced oil recovery methods, such as steam and hot water injection, to reduce its viscosity and enable it to flow. The largest U.S. deposits of heavy oil are in California and on Alaska’s North Slope. Estimates for the U.S. heavy oil resource total about 104 billion barrels of oil in place — nearly five times the United States’ proved reserves. In addition, although no commercial-scale development of U.S. oil sands or oil shale has yet occurred, both represent another potential future domestic unconventional oil resource.

With sustained high oil prices, unconventional oil resources may become more economically attractive. However, specialized processing is often required both to upgrade them for transportation to refineries and, at the refineries, to produce more useful end-products. Technologies that lower these processing costs can improve the economic competitiveness of unconventional oil resources and help bring more domestic oil to market.

Ceramatec’s new technology uses an alkali metal in combination with hydrogen or methane to remove sulfur, nitrogen, and metals from oil that’s not suitable for refining without treatment. The technology also encompasses an electrolytic process to regenerate the alkali metal and separate sulfur and metals. Ceramatec tested the process on heavy oil, oil shale, and oil sands feedstocks with a wide range of densities, boiling curves, and sulfur, nitrogen, metals, and asphaltene contents. In nearly 6,000 hours of continuous operation, the process consistently removed sulfur and heavy metals. Nitrogen removal was also achieved, but not to the reduction levels of sulfur.

This new technology has the potential to increase feedstock value through direct quality improvements and through the reduced necessity for expensive capital processing equipment expansions at refineries, such as fluid catalytic crackers and desulfurization units. Using methane as the process feed-gas has the added advantage of reducing the carbon footprint of oil-upgrading by avoiding emissions from steam methane reforming. The process also eliminates sulfur oxide emissions by erasing the need for conventional sulfur recovery processes.

For more information about Ceramatec’s research project with the DOE, including the final technical report, please visit the project page on the NETL website. Additional information about the process can be found at the Field Upgrading website.

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