ARCHIVED - Energizing Canada-U.S. Oil Sands Research
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November 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario
It's not just how they're mined that makes Alberta's massive oil sands deposits different from conventional crude oil. The two sources of crude are also chemically different. This is a sticky problem for refiners and automakers. But it's one that NRC scientists and their U.S. colleagues are now tackling together to find the best ways to get oil sands from the ground and into fuel tanks.
In recent years, Alberta's oil sands production has been pushed into high gear by a complex mix of economics, security issues and scientific know-how. Oil sand production now tops more than a million barrels a day.
But for all the buzz in the oil sands patch, oil sands-derived fuels are still the new kids on the energy block and the question is how are they going to fit in to the fuel mix? The tar-like bitumen extracted from oil sands is processed to produce "synthetic crude". This synthetic crude has a different mix of hydrocarbons — the chemicals that give the fuel its energy — than conventional crude oil. The hydrocarbons are heavier, more tar like, and are thus primarily used to produce diesel fuel.
"This chemical difference has a wide ranging impact, from how synthetic crude is refined to the tail-pipe emissions it produces," says Greg Smallwood who leads the combustion competency at NRC's Ottawa-based Institute for Chemical Process and Environmental Technology (NRC-ICPET). One result of the chemical differences is that conventional refineries can only handle up to 25 per cent synthetic crude in their mix before it disrupts the quality of the final product.
But, adds Smallwood, "There's an awareness problem among all the players in the North American oil and automobile industries about these differences and how to deal with them."
To change this, Smallwood helped organize the Oil Sands Chemistry and Engine Emissions Roadmap Workshop to put the scientific and technical spotlight on oil sands-derived fuels.
Increasing awareness of Canada's oil sands is one of the goals of the Enhanced Representation Initiative, a partnership of eight federal departments and agencies working together to strengthen Canada's representation in the United States and expand opportunities for Canadian business. This new initiative will enable Canada to have stronger representation in the U.S. and to more effectively communicate to Americans that Canada is an innovative and dynamic business partner. Canada and the U.S. have the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world, with two-way trade of U.S. $500 billion, in 2004. Already drivers of diesel vehicles supplied by Chicago area refineries are filling-up with a blend of conventional and oil sands-derived fuel.
The bilateral workshop, the first of its kind, brought together about 75 American and Canadian scientists and representatives from the oil sands, refinery and engine and fuels technology industries. Funded in part by Canada's Enhanced Representation Initiative, the Edmonton workshop was jointly organized by NRC-ICPET with Natural Resources Canada and the U.S. Department of Energy (US-DOE).
"Oil sands are a very new fuel for U.S. researchers. Until 2005 there was very little oil sands research in the U.S., so there was a lot of eye-opening at the workshop. Many of the U.S. researchers didn't realize the enormous magnitude of the oil sands resource and the impact it's having on the North American fuel mix," says NRC-ICPET research scientist Stuart Neill, an invited speaker at the oil sands workshop. Canada's oil sands reserves are estimated at about 175 billion barrels.
"Compatibility" was the key theme to emerge from the workshop. Oil sands companies and refiners are currently spending billions of dollars to build new facilities to chemically upgrade oil sands to make synthetic crude more like conventional crude. At the same time automakers are working to create new engines to meet future emissions standards and improve fuel economy.
"So the fuel industry is going in one direction and the engine industry in another and somehow they have to meet so that the fuel works in the engine as desired," says Neill. "The challenge in achieving this is to get everyone — the researchers, oils sands industry, refiners and automakers — to work together."
As a result of the workshop, NRC researchers are collaborating with scientists from the U.S. DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to evaluate the efficiency and emissions of conventional and non-conventional fuels in new low-temperature combustion engines — considered by automakers as a front-runner technology for their next-generation engines.
Low-temperature combustion isn't about trying to start your car in sub-zero weather. The nascent technology combines the best features of spark-ignition and diesel engines. The result is the fuel efficiency of a diesel engine (about 30 per cent more efficient than gasoline) but without the soot and oxides of nitrogen associated with diesel combustion.
"Dr. Craig Fairbridge, a scientist at the National Centre for Upgrading Technology in Alberta will process oil sands derived fuels to varying degrees and we will evaluate their performance in low temperature combustion engines," says NRC-ICPET's Stuart Neill. He'll work with NREL's Dr. Joshua Taylor, who is the technical lead of the U.S. Co-ordinating Research Council (CRC) project working on diesel-like fuels. The CRC brings together engine manufacturers, energy companies and government agencies to examine fuel-engine interaction issues.
The benefits of the Canada-U.S. research relationship are twofold, notes Neill. The groups will exchange fuels and evaluate them in the different NRC-ICPET and NREL engines. Secondly, as a result of the workshop, Dr. Fairbridge has been invited to join a new CRC Working Group that will recommend fuel mixes for advanced combustion research. This will help ensure that Canadian oil sands interests are considered in the development of new U.S. engine technologies.
According to NRC-ICPET's Greg Smallwood the Edmonton workshop was a first step, with talks already underway for a follow-up meeting. The overarching challenge he says is to bring fuels from oil sands into the mainstream while minimizing the cost, energy, and environmental impact required to do this.
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