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Chemistry touches every aspect of Syncrude's operations.

Albertans like to do things in a big way and there's nothing bigger than Syncrude Canada's plant near Fort McMurray. it is the largest synthetic crude oil (SCO) production plant in the world, averaging 165,000 barrels of SCO per day. It produced its 500 millionth barrel in February 1991. Production started in December 1973.

The oil sands plant is located about 40 km away from the Fort McMurray corporate headquarters. The total area used covers 75 [km.sup.2] included in this is the open pit mine which covers 28 [km.sup.2], the plant site, 6 [km.sup.2] and the tailings pond, 22 [km.sup.2]. The original cost of the Syncrude project was $2.3 billion; the current total capital investment is $3.6 billion.

Besides the plant, Syncrude also has a large research facility in Edmonton. The three facilities provide jobs for 4,500 people. Syncrude estimates that there are 1,500 contractors on site at any given time and that the company generates indirect employment across Canada for about 16,000 people.

Syncrude mines the oil sand from an open pit mine, extracts the bitumen (raw oil) using steam and hot water, and then upgrades it into SCO by fluid coking, hydrocracking, hydrotreating and reblending. The synthetic crude is sent to Edmonton via pipeline and then on to refineries.

For a company like Syncrude, chemistry translates into success. The science plays an extensive role in the whole process, literally touching every area of the plant at one time or another. Because Syncrude's process is so diverse -- the plant links four distinct operations: mining, extraction, upgrading, and utilities -- the need for chemistry only grows in importance. What may become a solution in one area of the plant, may well cause problems further down the line.

"When you're involved in chemistry, you realize that everything is somehow tied to chemistry. It's everywhere," explained research consultant Rob Schutte. "The oil sands have tremendous challenges ahead. And, when you add the effects of weak oil prices and a downturned economy, those challenges become even tougher.

|We're not only looking for the truth, as all research does, but we're looking for the truth that we can afford," added Schutte. "That's one more boundary placed on us; the solution has to be economical."

Finding the answers becomes even more difficult when the size of Syncrude operations is considered. It currently produces enough SCO to meet more than 11% of Canada's crude oil requirements. Last year alone, Syncrude shipped a record 60.3 million barrels of SCO down the pipeline.

"We have to come up with the right solutions, economically-sound, on a large commercial scale," said Schutte. "But, that extra criteria is part of the fun of industrial research."

Looking around the plant, it's not hard to see the effects of chemistry. For example, by far the largest chemical reactors on site are the catalytic hydrogenation units.

"Catalytic hydrogenation is a technique used to clean up the products from the cokers and the Lummus Crest Finer hydrotreater and to stabilize them in order to sell a high quality SCO," said Schutte. Currently, Syncrude is the largest single catalyst buyer in Canada. The hydrotreater uses hydrogen to treat impure naphtha and gas oil to remove sulphur and nitrogen.

Here's a glance at three other areas at Syncrude that constantly reap benefits from the study of chemistry.

Analytical studies

Probably one of the biggest contributions chemistry makes to Syncrude is through the development of analytical techniques. "We currently use over 100 techniques to look at samples," explained senior research scientist Brenda Crickmore. "Each technique is based on fundamental chemical principles".

The number of samples analyzed is astounding. In 1991, employees at both the research laboratory in Edmonton and the operations laboratory on Syncrude's site studied approximately 200,000 samples, many vastly different from the norm.

Quite often, the information gathered from these analyses provides the basis for some tough decisions. "Many solutions rely on some very good chemistry," added Crickmore. "It gets tied up in every step, primarily because a hypothesis is being made for a chemical change. It's our job to measure that change."

"Our short term role is to provide an immediate response to plant needs," said research associate Bob Hall. "In the long term, we anticipate and develop the analytical methods that will be needed for research and for the plant."

Hydrocarbon characterization is a common field of application. "We look at the detailed composition of the samples -- what are they, where are they coming from, what are their physical characteristics -- in as many ways possible to give a great deal of information," explained Crickmore. "Our job is to tell you as much about them as possible."

"We also look at samples after process conditions have changed to see if the product has in fact changed," added Hall.

With an elemental analysis, a technique often used, the search is on for the presence of a specific element. "For example, we may look for nitrogen or sulphur. We want to know if it is present and how much there is," said Crickmore. This type of technique may be used to study feed samples at a number of points down the line to determine changes.

Compound analysis is a second technique commonly used at Syncrude. Here, the study is on types of compounds that are present in a sample. Researchers may look for saturated compounds when the molecules are fully populated with hydrogen) or aromatic compounds molecules not fully populated but very stable in their state). Diesel fuel is a good example of compound analysis. With current U.S. legislation changes calling for diesel fuel with a lower aromatics content than what Syncrude produces, there is an immediate need for a better understanding of how the aromatics level can be reduced. Analytical techniques will help to determine a way to solve this urgent and very difficult problem.

Oil, water, solids analysis (OWS) is done regularly at the plant on oil sands or process streams. With OWS, "We extract oil out of oil sand, separate the water into a different part and look at the solids that are left over," noted Crickmore. "Particle size distribution is another technique used, primarily in mining and extraction. Here they need to know the size of the mineral particles in the oil sands."

This knowledge can help in predicting the feed quality, improving the processability, and smoothing out the process further down the line.

The list of applications at Syncrude is endless. At every step of the way, there will probably be an analytical technique used to gather more information about a sample. "It's our business to measure what's there," said Hall. "We tell people what something can be used for, or can't, or the consequences of a process change, all based on chemical analysis."

Chemical sensing technology

Getting fast and reliable information to operators often results in a higher quality product and an increase in production. Those are the main advantages of chemical sensing technology and the reasons for its importance at Syncrude.

One chemical sensing technique uses near-infrared reflectance analysis (NIRA). With this technology, light interacts with the molecules in a sample to provide detailed information about its concerns. A combination of intensity and wavelengths (color) of light is studied. For example, oil will absorb different colors than water or sand.

At Syncrude, NIRA is used for measuring the quality of oil sand coming into the plant. "We look at the composition as it's being fed into the plant instead of sending a sample to the lab and waiting for the results," explained research associate Gordon Thompson, Analytical Research.

Thompson has been involved with this emerging technology since it was introduced at Syncrude about 10 years ago. At that time, an instrument called the Wright & Wright Oil Sand Analyzer was brought on site with the purpose of measuring oil in oil sand feed. The original instrument measured oil on water. It was modified to fit Syncrude's need to measure the oil sands oil content as it's fed into extraction.

In 1991, the instrument was upgraded to allow eight filters (the original only used two)," said Thompson. "Now we will be able to upgrade it to measure the water, the oils and the fines and still give information immediately."

The Wright & Wright instrument now sits in Plant 4 on the plant feed conveyors, providing fast and accurate information on feed samples.

"Another potential NIRA offers is reducing the workload imposed by core work," he added. Core sample analysis is done regularly to help the mine identify higher quality oil sand.

"The mining group wants to map zones of the mine to identify the good or bad bitumen and high and low fines -- both horizontally and vertically," said Thompson. "They want to know where the reject is before they mine through it. Then, they can tell the operators where to expect different things."

According to Thompson, Syncrude would save an estimated $500,000 in core analysis costs if the move is made to use NIRA.

Another example of chemical sensing technology used at Syncrude is in Plant 6 where a refractometer is used to help operators control the mixture of naphtha to bitumen.

The refractometer is based on chemical principles and analytical chemistry being used in the lab. The main difference is that the instrument is located right at the front end of the process which gives the operators fast and reliable information.

In the past, Plant 6 has always had to run with a bit more naphtha than necessary to ensure there was enough. Now, with this information gathered by the refractometer, operators can keep the mixture closer to the normal ratio of 0.7 parts of naphtha to one part of bitumen.

"It gives operators a remote window into the process," explained Thompson. They can see what's happening without having to be out there: sometimes, even things that can't be seen visually.

Chemical sensing technology uses fundamental chemistry to find ways to give operators more information quickly and reliably. It's a tool to help them do their job more efficiently.

Colloid chemistry

With an operation as complex as Syncrude's, it is often the "small" problems that can cause the most difficulty. That's where the study of colloid chemistry becomes so valuable.

"Colloid chemistry is a science that deals with highly dispersed systems," explained the section head, Fundamental Studies, Jan Czarnecki. "These systems consist of more than a single phase."

For example, water forms a single liquid phase, as does an oil. "If we add some oil to water, we would have two separate liquid phases," Czarnecki explained. "If we disperse the oil into very fine droplets, we would end up with an oil in water emulsion which is a colloidal system.

"Everywhere we have tiny, tiny particles and where one or more of the various phases are highly dispersed, that is where colloidal science comes to the rescue."

Most of the time at Syncrude, when there is a colloidal situation, there is a problem. A particle in synthetic crude oil is fundamentally different than one in water. In order to really understand why the particle is there is not a trivial matter.

For example, what causes the ongoing build-up of pressure in the hydrotreaters is still not known. "One possibility is that fine solids are somehow plugging the reactors in some areas," added Czarnecki. "I may help by studying the adhesion of those particles and by trying to provide more information about them."

Another good example of the use of colloid chemistry is in extraction's Plant 6. After the feed has gone through the centrifuge, Syncrude is left with bitumen, naphtha and about 3% of the water (the remaining water and clay particles have been separated and are sent to tailings). The problem here is that the water being left in the feed also contains some dissolved salt, which has the potential to cause corrosion further down the line, in upgrading. The water is in the form of tiny droplets which are quite stable and difficult to remove.

It's important to solve this problem quickly. "With the mine extending to higher salinity ores where the concentration of salt will probably increase dramatically, you can imagine the potential effects with corrosion further down the line," said Czarnecki.

"These tiny droplets are only about a few microns in size (the width of a human hair is about 100 microns) and, as a result, they take ages to fall to the bottom," he explained. "We would like to make the droplets fuse together to become larger, then they would drop faster and become easier to remove."

And, according to Czarnecki, by removing the water droplets, the salt would also be removed. "Salt has a high affinity to water, it dissolves in water easily and doesn't really like an oily environment. That's why we believe that when we remove the water, we will in fact also remove the salt."

The key is to develop a method that would make this fusion easier while both solving the problem and being cost-effective. A number of options are being checked now. Colloid chemistry also comes into play with the management of fine tails where fine particles -- clay and silt -- remain suspended in a fluid and consolidate only very slowly. "In that case, again, we are dealing with a relatively stable system," explained Czarnecki. "We would like to make it less stable so we can remove the water and the material will consolidate. Then we can easily dispose of it according to our reclamation plans."

The benefits of colloid chemistry at Syncrude are tremendous, especially considering the number of areas that deal with minute particles. The science continues to be developed as each solution is found.

Technical tour planned

An all-day technical tour of the Syncrude plant in Fort McMurray will take place on Thursday, June 4, as part of the 75th Canadian Chemical Conference program. More details may be found in the Conference program in the April issue of ACCN.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Chemical Institute of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Author:Trach, Dianne
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:May 1, 1992
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