ARCHIVED - A new flame is burning brightly in the heavy oil industry
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GRIT Industries Inc.
March 05, 2007— Regina, Saskatchewan
From the time when Wayne King was a farm boy in Lloydminster, he has viewed mechanical apparatuses as things that always could be improved. At the age of nine, he converted his mother's Rototiller to a go-cart, and he has never looked back.
In 1985, after a few years in the heavy oil industry, Wayne could see that the methods of handling petroleum waste were primitive – not environmentally friendly, not healthy for workers, and wasteful.
Before heavy oil can be trucked to a refinery, the water, gas and grit (the sands, silt and clay) present in the oil need to be removed. Back in the 1980s, the heavy oil was heated so the grit would fall to the bottom of the holding tanks and the water and gas would rise to the top, with the small amounts of gas being vented out into the environment. "It was hard physical work and dangerous, too," says Wayne. "Men had to enter the tank to clean out the grit. No one in the industry had tried augering oil and sand."
Grit Industries sprang from Wayne's small-scale augering prototype – the Grit Hog – that he built in his garage. Then, thanks to a $50,000 forgivable loan from the province of Alberta. "I proved that machine and went on to develop the third generation of the machine in 1995. Grit Industries has now paid more than $1.3 million in taxes on the business I built with that original seed money." Today, Grit Hog augering equipment is working throughout Alberta for cleaner, more efficient heavy oil production.
The "grit," however, was only the beginning. In the 1990s, Wayne came up with the idea of finding a way of capturing the vent gas (raw natural gas) to warm the heavy oil, and his business started to really heat up. His goal was to develop low-pressure, safe, highly efficient heating for the heavy oil industry. The method of heating the oil is still unsafe, inefficient and difficult, sometimes blowing the dome and roof off the tanks.
In this type of production, the gases vent in ounces of pressure, but what is required are pounds of pressure to process the oil. Wayne's never been one to back down in the face of challenge, but knew he needed the support of the National Research Council Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) to overcome this ounce – pound problem. NRC-IRAP works with entrepreneurial companies to help them realize their full potential, and to develop knowledge and innovation and take it to the marketplace.
With NRC-IRAP support, Grit Industries is in the process of developing a fire tube that uses the wasted vent gas to heat the oil in the tank with only ounces of pressure. "A big upside is that we don't need to use electricity and there is little capital cost," adds Wayne.
To develop the technology, Wayne looked for simple solutions. First, he studied the low-pressure burners of barbecues and home furnaces. Next he found technology invented by the Chinese – a thermal siphon used to siphon heat from a factory to heat the factory. Finally, Wayne bought a company's U.S. patent that had expired to heat residential hot water.
"I was amazed the technology had never been used," he says. "That company had sat on the technology for 20 years. I was also fortunate to meet the inventor. Although the technology was there, we needed 125,000 BTU/hour, and the device offered only 65,000 BTU/hour. With development, this new fire tube now offers 80 percent thermal efficiency."
This technology is an important development for the heavy petroleum industry. Worldwide, the supply of light and medium oil is dwindling, and major oil producers abroad will soon need to tap into their heavy oil reserves. "That means they're likely to employ this Canadian-developed equipment and technology," Wayne grins.
The new fire tube, a two-phase thermo-siphon heating system, operates on only a few ounces of gas and there is no direct flame in the tank. "It is much safer and better economically," says Wayne.
"I guess you can't take the dreamer out of the inventor," Wayne jokes. "We have a new joint industry project and NRC-IRAP is a significant partner in providing engineering and supervisory expertise. We're now looking at a 'mechanical production treater (MPT)' to separate the oil from the other components so we can reduce trucking oil to a central station. Instead, it can be shipped through a pipeline."
The company now has 20 units, proving that MPT works in different environments and different situations. Phase 2 will involve field testing. And Phase 3 will test the possibility of shipping oil and water in separate pipes. All this will translate into opportunities and jobs for Albertans.
"I always knew there was a better way to get the job done," says Wayne. "But I couldn't have done it all without NRC-IRAP. Significant support was needed to put the whole project together. NRC-IRAP had the interest and dedication to help us initiate the project."
Grit Industries Inc. is also extending the use of many of the same technologies originally developed for oil to improve the efficiency of the natural gas industry. Heat-driven loop technology for heating natural gas is providing 80 percent thermal efficiency instead of the old 40 percent thermal efficiency. Wayne can see other applications in the future as well. He is the kind of person who is not only looking for a better way to do a job, but how to do it!
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