The deposition of mature fine tailings (MFT) from the new aqueous extraction process used to remove oil from oil sands is the most urgent challenge facing the oil sands mining industry. The sector is being forced to create more efficient technologies through government policy and public opinion.
The use of non-aqueous solvents to extract bitumen from oil sands is an alternate process. The non-aqueous approach can be efficient, but it has two big disadvantages. To mitigate the environmental effect and expense of wasted solvent, the solvent must first be extracted from the extraction gangue at very high efficiency. A clear analysis of the solvent’s interactions with products in the oil sands matrix, as well as an effective solvent design, are needed. To that end, the University of Alberta’s Institute for Oil Sands Innovation (IOSI) suggested the project “Intricacies of Non-Aqueous Mining of Oil sands” for ecoEII funding. The project obtained $982K to analyse the physicochemical processes that govern various aqueous bitumen production from the energy industry.
Oil sand processing uses a lot of energy and has a negative effect on the atmosphere. The mining industry depletes the surface of trees and topsoil, leaving cavernous mine pits. Mining for oil sands contains mountains of tailings sands, which are rich in sodium, chlorides, which sulphates and can spill into the atmosphere. Oil sands development is often water-intensive, and it has the ability to deplete local water sources, reservoirs, and waterways. The release of hot freshwater during the fracturing process can cause environments to be thermally disturbed. The most dangerous by-products of oil sand production may be particles and gaseous pollutants, which include greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and acidification compounds like sulphur dioxide.
The oil sands are refined into petroleum products in three steps:
- The solids and water are separated before the bitumen is mined from the oil sands.
- The hard bitumen is being converted to a cheaper, intermediate crude oil product.
- Refining crude oil to produce finished goods like diesel, lubricants, and diluents.
Historically, the remainder of bitumen produced in Alberta was processed into synthetic gas until being sold on the market to refineries. Any bitumen, on the other hand, is strong enough to be shipped straight from the power station to elevated refineries that can accommodate heavy/sour oil.
- Since it requires levelling hundreds of square miles of land, forests, and animals, the mining process is known to be particularly detrimental to the ecosystem.
- Operators of oil sands would come up with a proposal to restore the property and have it registered with the government. Just 8% of gross mineral land has been developed or is in the cycle of restoration since oil sands activities started in Canada in the 1960s.
- In-situ extraction, also known as in-situ recovery (ISR) or solution mining, is another method of removing oil sands. It’s mostly used to remove bitumen from oil sand that’s trapped too far under the earth’s crust to be retrieved with a tractor and hammer.
- The in situ process is more expensive than surface mining, but it is less environmentally harmful since it only requires a few hundred metres of land and a local water supply to work. A mining solvent is injected into the soil after the holes are dug. To open pathways, explosives or hydraulic drilling can be used at times.
According to the Alberta government, 80 percent of the oil in the oil sands was trapped too far for open-pit extraction, so in situ techniques would definitely be the way to produce oil from the sands in the future. Steam-assisted gravity drainage is the most common method of in situ drainage (SAGD).
Upgrading and Refining
Synthetic crude oil is made from some heavy oil and about half of the bitumen produced in the oil sands. Synthetic oil has a low sulphur content and leaves no trace (very heavy components). Upgrades may take place in or around the development field.
Upgrading is typically performed in two stages:
- Coking or hydrocracking is a method for breaking up molecules. The carbon is extracted by coking, whereas the hydrogen is added by hydrocracking.
- Hydrotreating is a method for stabilising oil and eliminating impurities, including sulphur.
- The large, complicated molecules in bitumen are cracked into local molecules using temperature, strain, and chemical catalysts during upgrading. Hydrocarbon compounds, including those present in light oil, are formed by adding hydrogen or extracting carbon from the oil. Upgraded synthetic oil is then refined into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and heating oil in the same manner as traditional crude oil is.
Upwards of 30% of Canadian oil is refined in the region, with the remainder going to refineries in the United States. Canada is looking for new markets for its oil outside of the world, but more gravitational water is required to make this a possibility.
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