COSIA is investigating ways to reduce energy use and associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the development of innovative technologies for oil sands in situ and mining operations. In oil sands mining, sources of GHG emissions include the energy required to mine and transport the oil sands, to separate the oil from the sand, and to process the oil. In situ drilling operations require energy to generate steam that is then injected deep underground into the oil sands formation to warm the heavy oil so it can be pumped to the surface.
Oil sands companies are working together, building on each other’s expertise and collaborating with universities, government and research institutes on energy efficiency projects that help manage GHG emissions associated with oil sands production. One of these projects is the Algal Carbon Conversion Project (Algae Project), a pilot-scale biorefinery that mixes CO2 emissions with algae to produce biofuel and biomass products.
An economic and engineering assessment for a pilot-scale biorefinery was initiated in 2013 by Canadian Natural Resources Limited (Canadian Natural), the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and Pond Technologies, a Canadian algae technology company. Building upon these learnings, the NRC, Pond Technologies, and St Marys Cement began testing this technology in 2016 at a pilot-scale biorefinery, located at St Marys Cement plant in Ontario.
The pilot captures carbon dioxide from the cement plant operations by placing them in large tanks with algae to promote photosynthesis with LED lights. Then the algae are pressed to release bio-oil that can be used for biofuels and biomaterials ― and, at an oil sands operation, blended into heavy oil or synthetic crude oil. The leftover biomass can then be used to feed livestock and for land reclamation.
Canadian Natural is participating in the first stage deployment of the biorefinery as an observer and will share in the results from the activities at the St Marys Cement plant. Canadian Natural will further participate in the planning and development of a later stage two deployment, anticipated for an oil sands operation.
Each tonne of algae can reduce CO2 emissions by 1.8 tonnes and will yield 0.3 tonne of biofuel and 0.7 tonne of biomass products that can be used as fertilizer, livestock feed and as an input into other premium products. The process will also release 1.3 tonnes of oxygen to the atmosphere.
The first stage pilot will determine optimized parameters for emissions reductions as well as the best path forward to a later stage two deployment anticipated for an oil sands operation.
If the technology can be scaled to commercial size, the potential for real emission reductions is substantial. The Algae Project has the potential to reduce emissions by 15 per cent at Canadian Natural’s Horizon oil sands operations. At Canadian Natural’s Primrose operations, the company believes emissions could be reduced by 30 percent or more. Overall, Canadian Natural expects to reduce over 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions which is comparable to removing the emissions of up to 300,000 vehicles off the road.
The Algae Project is the work of Canadian Natural and its partner the National Research Council of Canada and Pond Biofuels Inc. Results from the pilot project will be shared with the oil sands industry through COSIA.