In 1993, eight Syncrude employees embarked on a pilot project that would transform oilsands mining and shape the technology system that would enable the industry’s growth surge into the new century. In 2017 the oilsands marks 20 years since the commercialization of hydrotransport, while researchers work to improve its efficiency and further enhance its ability to boost returns.

Hydrotransport has been deployed in every single oilsands mine development that any company has built since Syncrude put it to work in 1997. The switch to trucks and shovels is often cited as the big mining step-change, but without hydrotransport, that major shift would not have made economic sense.

“It was an enabling technology; I don’t think you would have seen the kind of development that we saw in the late 90s and through the first part of the 21st Century without hydrotransport. It wouldn’t have been possible,” says Sean Sanders, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes at the University of Alberta, a former Syncrude process engineering leader.

“I think it’s just a great example of a company being brave, really investing their best people and their best ideas into an idea, partly out of necessity, and it coming to fruition in a really amazing way.”

In the early 1990s, both Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude were still mining using the massive draglines, bucketwheels and conveyor belts that had got them started in 1967 and 1978, respectively. But it was clear this system would become increasingly costly and uneconomic as mining operations progressed further away from their main processing facilities.

“Our leases were moving to more and more remote locations and our old technology was no longer feasible,” says Syncrude’s Stephen Morrison, one of four employees who worked in extraction at Syncrude before joining the hydrotransport pilot project. “If we have a lease that is 30 kilometres away from the plant, to convey oilsand that far just wasn’t feasible, so the pumping technology was initiated to try to contend with that.”

Hydrotransport moves crushed oilsands ore from the mine to the extraction plant via pipeline in a slurry with warm water, but it does more than move material — it also initiates separation in a process called conditioning. The result was a 35 per cent reduction in the amount of energy required to produce a bbl of oil and an improvement in bitumen recovery, according to Syncrude. 

Hydrotransport parked the bucketwheels, draglines and conveyors in favour of more agile trucks, shovels and pipelines. The rest, as they say, is history.

Within five years of the introduction of commercial hydrotransport at Syncrude’s North Mine in 1997, the technology was implemented at five new oilsands mining megaproject expansions: by Syncrude at Aurora in 2000 and Aurora Train 2 in 2002, by Suncor at Steepbank in 1998 and Millennium in 2001, and by Royal Dutch Shell plc at the brand-new Athabasca Oil Sands Project in 2002. 

“Right around that time there was a lot of expansion in the oilsands, and it was almost always in situations where the ore needed to be transported a number of kilometres to get from the mine that they were interested in exploiting to where they envisioned [extraction],” Sanders says.

“It really was absolutely the right technology to allow you to go relatively long distances between a mine and an extraction facility, and allowed you to operate at lower process temperatures than in the previous paradigm.”

Why hydrotransport works

Oilsands miners were no strangers to pipeline slurry prior to the introduction of hydrotransport, but adding the oilsands ore value material to the mix turned the whole system on its head.

“I knew we could pump slurry. [With] tailings, we pumped slurry every day. The only thing we didn’t have in there was all that froth,” explains Syncrude’s Robert Bailey, one of four employees from mining operations who worked on the pilot project.

Adds Morrison, “The difficulty in pumping oilsand is that you’ve got a mixture of oil and bitumen and rock and sand; making it all pump together in a homogenous flow.”

Hydrotransport changed slurry operations from transporting a waste product to moving the mine’s biggest prize.

“You’re now asking a pipeline to do more than just move material from point A to point B. If you've got a tailings pipeline, all it has to do is take the waste materials, the sand and the fine clays and the water, from your extraction plant to your dedicated disposal area, but if you’re talking about hydrotransport now it has two jobs: it has to get the oilsand ore from the mine into the extraction plant, and it also has to be the place where the ore is prepared for the separation,” says Sanders.

The change impacted mine operators like Lorne Shearing, currently Mildred Lake mine manager, who was a shovel operator when the change came in.

“If you think about waste, you’re not feeding a system that’s running at a constant rate; it allowed you some more flexibility in terms of how you managed your day. Once we were delivering ore as a shovel operator, you’re feeding a system that requires so many tonnes per hour — in today’s world it is common to be running at 18,000 tonnes per hour — and of course one shovel itself can’t deliver at that rate, so it is a combination of shovels. It requires a great deal of focus on producing that volume for the entire shift,” Shearing says.

“The complexity of the job, I would say, went up significantly.”

The blend delivered to the crushers and into the hydrotransport pipeline was a challenge that offered the system’s biggest benefits.

“It works because there’s really intense mixing going on in the pipeline,” Sanders says. “What you’re doing is interacting all of the components in a way that you need to in order to get that conditioning to occur. It's also the fact that [the ore] gets to spend quite a bit of time in that pipeline. It’s the combination that makes it successful.”

Sanders had just joined Syncrude as an employee in 1997 when the company was just starting up the North Mine and its first commercial hydrotransport system.

“It was a huge deal, and the reason it was a huge deal is because even though all of the research and development activities made it look like it was very positive, and Syncrude had done a prototype earlier, the reality is that it is a major step-out technology, and so I think everybody was just holding their breath a little bit when hydrotransport came online,” he says.

“I think everybody was pretty confident it was going to work, but so much of Syncrude’s future plan was based on the successful implementation of hydrotransport technology that it kind of had to work.”

Almost right away, he adds, it did.

The pilot

In 1993, Syncrude brought together four employees from extraction and four employees from the mine in order to develop and operate the pilot test of hydrotransport. It was important to the company that both sides be represented, notes Morrison, because the process integrated the two in a new way.

“We built a small plant that was a really small budgeted project, and we put it together with a lot of nuts and bolts that weren’t all parts ordered from fabricators. A lot of the components we ended up grabbing from warehouses and laydowns around site that were just not in use anymore,” he says.

“The first plant wasn’t all that robust, although we started making oil with it right from the beginning.”

Despite many "trials and tribulations," the project started paying dividends after three to four months, Bailey notes.

“Within a month or so we ended up being part of the planning for the mine. We were doing 40,000 tonnes per day of ore.”

The EAPs pilot continued operating at Syncrude for nearly a decade.

Buy-in

Getting hydrotransport going was about more than proving out the technology — it was also about making believers out of skeptical employees. Leadership in both mining and extraction had made believers of the pilot project team, and they set out to spread the message.

“I had to go try to convince people that were running equipment that if this technology works we might end up starting to park equipment, and there weren’t too many believers. When we did all these team meetings explaining our project, we didn’t even have five-10 per cent belief in the room, and they had over 100 people there,” says Bailey, who was just 23 at the time.

“I had a person from the mine with me that could share the knowledge, so everybody from the mine saw there were mining people part of it; I think it made it a little bit easier. If it was extraction that just walked in there and said ‘hey, we’re doing this,’ I don’t think it would have ever worked…

“When you heard all the questions coming from the people in the mine, it just gave you that motivation to do whatever you could to get this thing to run and make it successful, and after three months or so everybody was believers that this could work.”

It was natural for people to feel nervous about the switch, Shearing says.

“We were going into a phase where we would be phasing equipment out and changing technologies. There were people back then who were concerned about, ‘what does this mean for me?’ but the reality is that Syncrude has long taken the approach that we will train people on new technologies and bring them into the fold and that’s exactly what we did back then.

“As the migration from dragline bucketwheels switched over to truck/shovel and hydrotransport those people were all migrated over and were trained on key positions within truck/shovel/hydrotransport,” he says.

“With any technology changes that happen in the future, we would take a very similar approach to what we’ve taken in the past. Regardless of how the technology changes, ultimately technology still requires people. In fact people improve on technology.”

The future of hydrotransport

At the U of A, Sanders and his team are working on improving the hydrotransport process, and he says there are tonnes of opportunities to pursue.

“In reality that pipeline has mostly been operated under conditions that provide reliable transportation, and so there have been very few changes made that actually help to optimize the conditioning or the separation side of things,” he says.

This includes introducing air to the slurry, and adjusting mixing intensity. 

“Bitumen droplets won’t separate unless they attach to air, so one of the really important processes that has to occur in that pipeline is that droplets of the bitumen have to at some point attach to air bubbles,” Sanders says.

“Of course, depending on how you put the air into the line, it can all just rise to the top and just float along the top, or it can really cause problems with the pumps, so we’re looking at ways of introducing the air that really make it more effective for attaching to and attracting the bitumen droplets.

“We are [also] playing with the idea of, for example for very short sections, really increasing the intensity of mixing. You couldn’t do that for the whole length of the pipeline, but you just do it in short bursts and it turns out that that intense mixing really causes the oilsand grains to smash together in a way that makes them process much more readily when they come out.”

The newest application of hydrotransport technology will be at Suncor’s Fort Hills project, which is expected to come online any day.