Turning ‘gunk’ into a liquid gold

Cedric Briens

Western Engineering News | January 7, 2015

By Heather Hughes

Finding a way to improve the efficiency of how heavy oil is upgraded is a challenge Cedric Briens is excited to take on as the NSERC Syncrude/ExxonMobil Industrial Research Chair in Fluid Coking Technologies at Western University.

Briens, director of research and development at the Institute for Chemical and Fuels from Alternative Resources (ICFAR), has received support for his research from Syncrude Canada Ltd., ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Through the Industrial Research Chair position, "we know we can have some impact," he said. “The oil sands are very important to the Canadian economy, creating many jobs. If this research is successful, it will become more attractive for companies to invest in Canada.”

Canada has extensive reserves of heavy oils, including bitumen, particularly in the oil sands in Alberta. In order to be useful, heavy oils must be upgraded to lighter and more valuable products, such as gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel and petrochemical feedstocks. A common upgrading process is Fluid Coking, which was developed by ExxonMobil. Using this conversion process, Syncrude produces a sweet synthetic crude oil that can be processed in regular refineries.

Fluid Coking technology has been further developed through a joint research program between ExxonMobil and Syncrude.

“Upon extraction from the oil sands, bitumen is separated from the sand, water and clay. Bitumen is known as a heavy oil, a very thick substance about the consistency of the asphalt used in roofing,” he said, noting Fluid Cokers are used to process the residual and heaviest portion of the bitumen.

Syncrude upgrades the bitumen to a premium sweet synthetic blend at the source, which can be pumped using regular pipelines, he explains. The preferred technology used for the upgrading is Fluid Coking, a sophisticated process that involves spraying the topped bitumen onto a fluidized bed of hot coke particles. The heavy oil long hydrocarbons are broken down or “cracked” into smaller, more valuable fragments that can be used to form synthetic crude.

“If you make it work better, it is going to be more efficient and economical. It is also going to reduce the environmental impact,” he said. “To do this, you have to understand the fundamentals of what happens when you spray a liquid into a fluidized bed.”

The objectives of this industrial research chair position are to increase the operability and liquid yields of Fluid Cokers and to reduce the environmental footprint of heavy oil upgrading.

Briens is an expert in fluidization and particulate operations, which he has applied to the development of new reactor technology for the conversion of biomass and heavy oils into valuable products through his work at ICFAR.

Although Briens holds the chair title, he sees it as a team effort involving the industrial partners and his colleagues at ICFAR, such as Franco Berruti, students, post-doctoral fellows and staff.

The chair position provides funding over five years, a luxury Briens is grateful for as it allows his team at ICFAR to explore more long-term research, both fundamental and applied. It also enables specialized training for graduate students, providing exposure to industry challenges with the opportunity to work on research that will have real-world applications.

The chair position has allowed a new faculty member who has experience adding hydrogen to bitumen, Dominic Pjontek, to join the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering.

The research supported by this chair position will also have broader applications to other energy sectors, such as agriculture and forestry. “Although we focus the chair position on bitumen, a lot of these technologies can be adapted to work on biomass,” he adds.

Briens is excited about the partnership with Syncrude and ExxonMobil, as it has the potential to improve processes and reduce the impact on the environment.

“We have access to the best technologies and we learn a lot from our industry partners,” he said. “It’s a very important industry to Canada; we want to help them be successful.”