Although the oil sands deposits in Canada contain as much as 173 billion barrels of economically viable oil — which is topped only by Saudi Arabia’s reserves — only about one million barrels are produced each day. The problem is that extracting the oil can be a difficult process — and one that is more energy consuming than traditional crude oil production. With the oil industry in Canada expecting to increase production to four million barrels a day by 2020, there is a growing need to not only treat the massive amounts of water that are used in the extraction process, but to also tackle the greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of the energy used while mining. Now scientists at GE Global Research, which is the hub of technology development for all of GE’s businesses, are partnering with the University of Alberta and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures — Alberta’s technology incubator — to use nanotechnology to create a new filtration system that tackles the twin problems of water treatment and carbon capture. The work has the potential to cut carbon emissions during the extraction process by 25 percent.
|Big dig: In surface operations, hot water is used to separate the oil from the sands. In underground operations, water is turned into steam and pumped into the wells. Photo: canadasoilsands.ca|
As the Canadian oil producers explain on their website, in oil sands, the oil is as thick as peanut butter and doesn’t flow. Called “bitumen,” it must be processed to take on the characteristics of light crude oil. It can either be mined at the surface — which only works for 20 percent of the operations in Canada — or by drilling deep underground wells. In drilling, steam or other solvents must be injected so that the thick oil can be pumped to the surface. And it’s that process — turning the water to steam, pumping it in and out, and then upgrading the material into light crude — that uses a great deal of energy and a great deal of water. It reportedly generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases when compared to conventional oil production.
|Thinking big: The largest deposits of oil sands in Canada are in Alberta. The work being done by GE is part of a $4 million CO2 capture project supported by the nonprofit Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation. The CCEMC is providing $2 million with an equal cost share from GE and its project partners. Image: canadasoilsands.ca|
GE already has carbon capture technologies that are part of our “integrated gasification combined cycle” technology used in coal plants. In these systems, chemical scrubbers filter out pollutants to make the coal burning plants cleaner. At the same time, CO2 can be separated and stored. In the future, the nanotechnology research now underway could also support CO2 separation and capture in power plants using the “cleaner coal” integrated gasification combined cycle process.
|Pore cousin: The zeolite materials have a porous molecular structure that will aid in developing membrane technologies.|
At the heart of the new nanotechnology research are naturally occurring zeolites identified by the University of Alberta. These materials are rocks with molecularly sized pores, which allow small molecules to enter while excluding larger molecules. GE scientists aim to form these materials into membranes that can be used for high temperature gas separation — and to filter contaminated water. Anthony Ku, a chemical engineer and project leader for GE Global Research on the CO2 capture project, said now that the University has identified the material’s potential, GE will “figure out how to build a prototype that will be tested in the field.”
Currently, GE’s water filtration technologies are already in use in Alberta helping the Great Divide Oil Sands Partnership recycle up to 98 percent of the water used in their extraction process. Click here to learn more.
* Read the announcement
* Learn about our partnership with the Alberta Water Research Institute
* Learn more about GE Global Research
* Read the Global Research blog
* Read Robert Perry’s CO2 capture posts on the Global Research blog
* Read about carbon capture in the Gorgon oil field
* Visit the Alberta Geological Survey
* Visit the oil sands website of the Canadian oil industry
* Learn about the oil sands extraction technologies made by GE Oil & Gas
Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “Shampoo-conditioners: A slick way to capture carbon”
* “A cleaner path to coal: The ABCs of IGCC technology”
* “California plant picks GE’s advanced coal technology”
* “GE’s advanced coal technology arrives at Duke Energy”