Hard times call for a heavy alternative

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On September 17, 2006

When Samuel Frimpong thinks about the world’s ever-increasing dependence on crude oil, his mind turns to sands and statistics.

Sixty percent of the planet’s conventional crude oil reserves are in the Middle East. By contrast, about half of the world’s heavy hydrocarbon reserves can be found in North America, mostly in the oil sands of Canada, the United States and Venezuela. What makes those numbers even more interesting is another statistic: The world’s total heavy hydrocarbon reserves, which include about two billion barrels worth of heavy oil in Missouri, exceed conventional oil reserves by a factor of five.

Unfortunately, heavy hydrocarbons can’t be pumped from the earth like crude oil. Oil sands, for instance, must be mined and put through extensive processing by oil companies.

Oil sands contain bitumen, a tar-like substance that, when treated, can yield synthetic crude oil. Bitumen is mostly carbon and some sulfur, which must be removed for environmental reasons. “The idea is to upgrade the bitumen to reduce viscosity,” says Frimpong, the Robert H. Quenon Chair of Mining Engineering at UMR.

It may be an idea whose time has come. In Canada, the current market for oil allows companies in the oil sands business to recover costs and turn a profit – but it’s a risky endeavor. Frimpong thinks he can help the companies be more efficient. He traveled to Alberta over the summer to tour some mining sites and to pitch a few ideas related to the extraction of oil sands.

For now, huge trucks are used to haul the sands from the mines to processing stations, where the material is crushed and added to water, creating a slurry that can be transported through fixed pipelines. The slurry is later processed further to produce pure bitumen. The last step, according to Frimpong, is to “thermally crack the bitumen to yield a light, sweet blended crude oil with a high gravity grade.”

Frimpong and his research team have proposed using flexible pipeline technologies and mobile slurry stations that interface directly with shovel excavators. “What I am focusing on is developing technologies that will enable us to mine oil sands at a lower cost,” Frimpong says. In the future, he thinks it might be possible to use waterjet technology right at the face of the excavation site to eliminate the necessity of the excavators and slurry stations. UMR’s waterjet expert, David Summers, joined Frimpong on the Canada trip last summer.

In an attempt to validate theoretical and virtual simulation results, Frimpong’s team is currently focusing on proposals for building physical prototypes. The team hopes to find corporate funding for the laboratory and field tests, which could costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“If the ideas are proven to be viable and are eventually implemented, the costs and risks associated with heavy oil and bitumen extraction will be reduced substantially,” Frimpong says. “This will be a significant contribution toward North America’s energy security.”

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On September 17, 2006. Posted in Fall 2006, Features