Suncor aims to advance mining technologies in the oilsands

This article is part of the Fall 2018 edition of the Journal of the Canadian Heavy Oil Association.

Suncor pioneered oilsands development. Our early investments in technology helped unlock the potential of the oilsands, by improving reliability and performance, expanding productivity and driving down costs while reducing our environmental footprint.

Today, new technologies and innovative thinking remain fundamental to how we do business. We take a balanced approach to technology development, focusing on continuous improvement technology (step-change improvements in existing processes) and strategic technology (game-changing, disruptive).

In 2017, we invested approximately $350 million in technology development and deployment as part of a robust technology strategy, to optimize current assets and develop next-generation facilities.

Ultimately, we’re committed to developing technologies that will allow us to produce crude oil from our oilsands projects, at a cost and with an environmental footprint at or below that of conventional oil. We believe this can be achieved in part through the selective decarbonization of our oilsands products. So, what is decarbonization?


Bitumen is a complex mixture of compounds, including heavy hydrocarbon components that require significant upgrading and refining before they can be used as gasoline, diesel, or other fuels. Upgrading is the process that increases the ratio of hydrogen to carbon in these heavy components; one way to achieve this is by rejecting a portion of the carbon from the bitumen. This ‘decarbonization’ could result in:

  • higher value bitumen-derived crude oil while simultaneously permanently removing carbon, sulphur and impurities from the global fuel system,
  • less diluent required for transportation and lower the downstream processing hydrogen and energy requirements, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions,
  • and increasing pipeline capacity.
Paraffinic Froth Treatment

Our Fort Hills mine uses Paraffinic Froth Treatment (PFT) to convert bitumen froth into a partially upgraded, fungible product. In PFT, asphaltenes (the low-value, heavy fraction of the mined bitumen) are removed to create a lighter, higher quality product that requires less diluent to transport by pipeline, and no upgrading requirements leaves us more flexibility for downstream processing.

As a result of this partial decarbonization process, our greenhouse gas emissions for the average barrel extracted at Fort Hills are on par with the average crude refined in the United States.

Permanent Aquatic Storage Structure (PASS)

Built upon the processes currently used in our Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO), Suncor has developed PASS – a fluid tailings treatment process, to significantly increase the amount of fluid tailings we can treat in a more sustainable manner.

PASS combines the TRO process with the addition of a coagulant to improve the quality of the water expressed from the treated fluid tailings. The treatment process allows us to rapidly dewater the fluid tailings as the clay particles adhere to the flocculant, safely expressing most of the trapped water and providing an effective means for creating a lake that not only achieves our closure plan, but in an accelerated timeline.

To validate this closure concept, we have constructed a Demonstration Pit Lake that contains PASS treated fluid tailings that will have an aquatic cover established in 2018. The project is planned to be monitored and adaptively managed for the next 15 years.

For more information on Suncor’s approach to innovation and technology, please see our 2018 Report on Sustainability.

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