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Improving In-situ Oil Sands Recovery

For the last decade or so, the hottest thing in deeper oil sands recovery has been Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage or SAGD. Billions have been invested in implementing the process with a few bumps along the way (Nexen's Long Lake debacle for example). Sometimes the patch can suffer from groupthink with predicatable consequences. 

There are other ways to heat up an oil sands reservoir besides using steam. Fuel cells, microwaves, direct current, radio waves, plasma torches etc. Making steam is expensive and requires fresh water. Here's an interesting press release on what might just be a better way...


CALGARY, Alberta, Canada-- A technology and energy production consortium has successfully completed initial proof-of-concept testing of a unique oil sands extraction method that has the potential to improve environmental performance and reduce development costs.


The consortium of Laricina Energy, Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy and Harris Corporation completed its initial phase testing of the Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH – pronounced “easy”) project at Suncor’s Steepbank mine facility north of Fort McMurray. The $33 million program is supported by the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) and the test was approved by the Energy Resources Conservation Board.

The test confirms the ability to successfully generate, propagate and distribute electromagnetic heat in an oil sands formation. It also validates the analytical tools and methods used to predict the performance of the process, thereby increasing the consortium’s confidence as it moves to a field pilot next year. While these preliminary results are encouraging, additional work remains before the commercial viability of the process can be determined.

“ESEIEH is a key project for the CCEMC and Alberta, and offers the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during oil sands production. The ESEIEH team is making excellent progress and we look forward to the upcoming pilot project,” said Eric Newell, Chair of the CCEMC.

Approximately 1.6 million barrels per day of crude oil are currently being produced through surface mining and in situ recovery processes in Alberta. In situ processes, including steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) and cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) now contribute roughly half of the total daily production from the Canadian oil sands. Mining and in situ processes use hot water or steam to separate bitumen from the sands, requiring both water and energy. These two key factors affect environmental performance and associated capital and operating costs in oil sands development.

ESEIEH replaces the need for water by applying Harris’ patent-pending antenna technology to initially heat the oil sands electrically with radio waves. An oil solvent is then injected to dilute and mobilize the bitumen with minimal energy requirements, so that it can be extracted and transported for further processing. By reducing the energy required and eliminating the need for water, the ESEIEH process is expected to improve environmental performance, while providing greater efficiency and versatility in oil sands recovery operations.

The anticipated benefits of ESEIEH technology in oil sands production include:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating fossil fuels to generate steam;
  • Operating cost efficiencies through reducing the amount of energy necessary in the extraction process;
  • Capital and operating cost efficiencies by removing the need for steam generation and water treatment facilities;
  • Improving the quality of the extracted oil as a result of using electromagnetic versus steam heating in the extraction process; and
  • Increasing the amount of oil sands deposits deemed economically viable by reducing the extraction costs – permitting economic access to otherwise stranded oil deposits.

The electromagnetic heating technology was first evaluated and tested in Florida last year and then moved to Fort McMurray for the proof-of-concept field testing. The next phase – an expanded pilot field test -- is scheduled to begin in 2013. Some elements of the technology solution may become commercially available prior to the final testing.

Editors Note: Photo available upon request.


ESEIEH was established in 2009 to meet the challenge put forward by the CCEMC to expand climate change knowledge, develop new ‘clean’ technologies and explore practical ways of implementing them. ESEIEH began with the goal of developing a new recovery method that was more efficient and environmentally responsible than current processes. Funding for the $33 million evaluation program is provided 50 percent by the consortium and 50 percent by the CCEMC.

Members include:

  • Harris (NYSE:HRS), an international communications and information technology company serving government and commercial markets in more than 150 countries. www.harris.com
  • Laricina, a privately held, Calgary-based company focused on developing Canada’s oil sands using innovative in situ technologies. www.laricinaenergy.com
  • Nexen Inc., an upstream oil and gas company with significant holdings in the Athabasca oil sands including the integrated SAGD and upgrading facility at Long Lake, a 7.23 percent working interest in Syncrude Canada Ltd and a 25 percent working interest in the Hangingstone SAGD project www.nexeninc.com
  • Suncor Energy, Canada’s premier integrated energy company, with common shares (symbol: SU) listed on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges.www.suncor.com
  • CCEMC, a not-for-profit organization whose mandate is to establish or participate in funding for initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation. The CCEMC invests in discovery, development, and operational deployment of clean technologies. www.ccemc.ca