​COSIA ‘turns up the volume’ on call for innovators to solve oil sands technical challenges

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is reaching out to innovators and technology developers in Alberta, across Canada, and around the world to help it find solutions for a set of more than 60 specific environmental needs related to water, land, tailings and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

COSIA, an alliance of eight companies representing more than 90 percent of current oil sands production, launched its Innovation Opportunities earlier this year and is now boosting the innovation invitation through a variety of channels to spread the message far and wide.

An open-source approach like this is not only part of COSIA’s mandate but also part of its fabric, says chief executive Wes Jickling.

“Internally, our member companies share considerable in-house expertise, innovation and intellectual property. We exchange learnings and best practices and collaborate on research and pilot projects. We have competitors working together, going faster and obtaining better outcomes together,” he says.

“There are extremely bright and experienced scientists and researchers in the community and innovation ecosystem. We also count on industry professionals in our member companies, and we know that we can benefit from collaborating with others. We want to use every tool and means available to attract those best and brightest thinkers. We’re turning up the volume on attracting some solutions and innovators to our opportunities.”

COSIA is targeting researchers, scientists, experts and post-secondary students from universities and technical schools, as well as small-to-large enterprises that may have technologies under development that would be useful, Jickling says.

COSIA is also leveraging membership in the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) to reach a broader network of potential innovators within the energy sector as well as other industry sectors. One example of this is COSIA’s work through CRIN to progress development and deployment of hydrocarbon recovery technologies with less GHG intensity.

Also, in 2020, CRIN and COSIA will develop a workshop that will help to identify novel innovation gaps, create an accessible knowledge platform that houses best practices and lessons learned, and build technology development skillsets. “It is about producers and key stakeholders working collaboratively to establish priorities and opportunities to accelerate ‘lab to field’ technology development,” Jickling notes.

TOP PRIORITIES

There are more than 60 innovation opportunities in total, but right now, COSIA is focusing on potential areas in each of its four environmental priority areas: land, water, tailings and GHGs.

“Partly, we’re looking at the technologies that can have the biggest impact in terms of moving the needle on environmental performance to achieve our aspirations,” says Rob Gray, COSIA’s director of communications and stakeholder relations. “We want to focus on those top priorities and once we realize some traction with those, we’ll move on to the next.”

Land Innovation Opportunity: Approaching Zero Land Disturbance Exploration

The vast majority of oil sands resource (approximately 80 percent) is too deep for surface mining and must be recovered by “in situ” drilling methods. While in situ projects disturb a fraction of the surface land (only 15-25 percent of the land), these projects still have an impact on the boreal forest.

For example, the industry recognizes that exploration practices common and acceptable 50 years ago, such as the cutting down of trees in seismic corridors, have contributed to forest fragmentation. While current exploration technologies have evolved to low-impact methods, COSIA members are aggressively looking to further refine exploration activities through research and technology that will enable exploration with a very limited environmental footprint.

“It’s about trying to attract new technologies that would enable oil sands seismic exploration activity to happen with zero or very minimal disturbance to land,” Gray says. “Essentially, it’s enabling that exploration activity while preserving or protecting the forest.”

Water Innovation Opportunity: Passive Organics Treatment Technology

In mining oil sands operations, tailings ponds are settling basins that enable process water to be separated and recycled, reducing freshwater use. High water recycle rates result in a build-up of organic compounds in the process water. These organic compounds are beneficial to the bitumen extraction process but need to be treated if the process water is to be released to the Athabasca watershed.

COSIA is looking for technologies to passively treat dissolved organic compounds present in oil sands process water, either improvements to existing systems or new non-mechanical technologies.

“What this is about is treating oil sands process water with low or zero energy,” Gray says. “Essentially, COSIA is looking into innovative and sustainable water treatment technologies to significantly improve the quantity and quality of water used, re-used, and returned to the environment.”

Tailings Innovation Opportunity: Clay Challenge

Of the up to 85 percent of mineral solids present in oil sands deposits, clays represent the biggest environmental challenge for mining production as it is this fraction that dominates the behavior of fluid fine tailings.

Over the past four decades, the industry has developed and deployed several technologies to rapidly dewater fluid fine tailings to enable reclamation into a terrestrial landform, but there is room for improvement.

COSIA is looking at technological solutions to modify clay properties, sequestration of clay minerals and clay chemistry, which could potentially accelerate dewatering and consolidation rates associated with oil sands fluid fine tailings.

“It is about looking for leading-edge technologies from innovators to explore attributes such as the bulk and surface properties of oil sands clay minerals to effect a beneficial behavioural change in tailings and ultimately speed up the reclamation process,” Gray notes.

GHGs Innovation Opportunity: Natural Gas Decarbonization

In situ oil sands operations consume large quantities of natural gas to produce steam. For example, a typical 33,000-bbl/d facility would operate six steam boilers requiring 1,600 GJ/h of natural gas; combustion fuel gas contains 7-8 percent CO2.

COSIA continues to investigate several carbon capture technologies, including post-combustion CO2 capture, pre-combustion CO2 capture and oxy-combustion. COSIA is also working on natural gas decarbonization projects, which entail removing the carbon from natural gas before combustion, through thermal or electrical means.

“We’re undertaking an environmental and economic evaluation of all potential natural gas decarbonization technologies from other industries around the world that have potential for use in the oil sands,“ Gray says. “The intent is to develop an additional way to reduce CO2 emissions from operational facilities.”

GETTING INVOLVED

For innovators and technology developers interested in COSIA’s Innovation Opportunities, plugging into the CRIN network is a great way to create new connections within the innovation ecosystem, highlight their technologies, and consider ways to help accelerate their technology development through the network. Innovators are encouraged to become members at cleanresourceinnovation.com and familiarize with CRIN’s key technologies theme areas through their LinkedIn groups.

In terms of COSIA, the best way to start engaging is to visit COSIA’s Environmental Technology Assessment Portal (E-TAP) on COSIA’s website www.cosia.ca. “Submitting a technology idea is quite simple to do; all a potential innovator has to do is fill out a basic form with non-confidential information about his/her idea or technology or solution. We are looking for a general overview of the potential innovation,” Gray says.

“From there, the technology is assessed within COSIA, which includes a view across all of our membership. If even just one of our members is interested in the technology, the process will progress to the next stage, where more detailed discussions take place about the actual innovation. If there’s still interest in pursuing the idea or innovation from both parties, a contracting process will kick into play.”

As of today, through E-TAP, COSIA members have expressed interest in 166 potential ideas or innovations, 69 of which have resulted in contracts.

COSIA’s Innovation Opportunities are generating a great deal of interest, Gray says, “but for the most part these are not the sort of technologies that just sit around on a shelf,” and as such it’s likely going to take some time to get the actual innovations in the door. Right now, COSIA is working to create interest and share technical specifications.

Jickling adds, “What we’re looking for is economic and technological feasibility, and the more new ideas or innovations meet those two tests, the more likely they will be adopted or deployed.”

The Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) is an industry-led network that leverages the oil and gas industry's strengths in a large-scale industrial collaboration by aligning research and technology priorities, addressing gaps, and incenting innovation. With a collaborative and inclusive approach to the energy innovation ecosystem, CRIN creates efficiencies to accelerate and deliver transformative solutions both within Alberta and across Canada.

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