A More Sustainable Way to Win Oil from Oil Sands

(Scrivener Publishing) – Continuing advances in renewable (hydro, wind, solar, biobased) energy approaches are expected. Still, fossil fuels are very likely to remain the predominant energy source worldwide for decades to come. Along with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, Canada holds one of the world’s major proven oil reserves. The Canadian oil reserves, estimated to contain as much as 1.7 trillion barrels of heavy oil or bitumen, are largely found in the province of Athabasca in the form of oil sands.

Oil sands are a mixture of sands and other rock materials and contain crude bitumen. Large quantities of water are required to win a single barrel of very heavy bitumen from the oil sands (100 to 200 gallons of water per barrel of recovered oil). Oil sands companies are currently held to a zero-discharge policy by the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (1993), meaning that all oil sands that process water (OSPW) used to extract the very heavy bitumen must be recovered and held onsite. This requirement has resulted in over a billion cubic meters of toxic tailings water being held in onsite containment systems.

Ultimately, the companies are responsible for finding a way to safely release the used water back into the local environment. Despite extensive programs that have led to significant improvements in recycling water, reducing tailings ponds buildup, and reducing toxic contaminant levels in the tailings ponds, process management challenges nevertheless persist – and those challenges are necessarily associated with high levels of environmental risk. Hydrocarbon-based solvent extraction processes are being developed to offer potentially low-energy, water-free, and environmentally superior alternatives to the current water-based extraction processes.

The authors previously discussed the process steps in the EPIC Oil selective extraction of oil from oil sands. Total bitumen streams from oil sands are low API gravity, have 15–20% asphaltene content, have significant metals content, a high carbon/hydrogen atomic ratio, etc. These streams therefore require carbon rejection (coking or other) combined with extensive hydrogen treatment to remove metals, sulfur and nitrogen.

Here the authors focus on additional details of the EPIC Oil selective extraction solvent extraction technology approach and will present characterization data showing advantageous features of the “deasphalted” crude oil product that is obtained from this waterless process approach.


Journal of Sustainable Energy Engineering, 5(1), 2017, 12-28.

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