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The Oilsands Challenge

Early oil drill rigIt has long been recognized that the oilsands of northern Alberta hold great potential. Because of technological limitations, however, exploring with early drills in hopes of finding liquid oil was the first stage of the oilsands development. This quickly gave way to experimentation with the oEarly road grater ilsands themselves, with attempts to find uses for the resource that made sense. This ranged from roofing materials to experimental road paving, which was carried out in the 1920s. After this period of experimentation, research shifted more towards finding a way of separating the oil from the sand. This essential problem—getting the oil out of the sand on a large scale and efficiently—was the central theme of oilsands innovation from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Several early attempts were made based on water-extraction principles, but none were extremely successful, as the process was neither reliable nor efficient enough. Additionally, the early water-extraction plants were prone to fire, and accidents took their toll.

Diagram of rapid-heat processorOilsands scientist Karl Clark would, ultimately, in cooperation with the University of Alberta and the Alberta Research Council (ARC), create a plant that produced oil efficiently for one summer in the 1960s. With this accomplished, the water-extraction process was proven to work and Dr. Clark’s inventions were patented. Large-scale operations followed in the late 1970s, and by the early 1990s, the extraction of oil from the Athabasca oilsands was set for the growth we are witnessing today.

Since only 10 per cent of oilsands deposits are extractible through the surface, the future will be focused on subsurface extraction. A stretch of bitumen-paved roadTherefore, just as the initial problem of how to separate the oil from the sand was the focus of Alberta’s innovators in the past, the future will be a tale of subterranean science. These extraction techniques are called "in-situ" because the engineers must extract the resource where it is found, deep below the surface, rather than extracting it from the surface.

The two main in-situ processes are Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) and Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage. All in-situ processes require large amounts of steam, and producing that steam requires energy. Consequently, the saying around the oilsands is that "it takes energy to make energy." So, the big question will be how to produce that power. Rapid-heat separator machineNatural gas is the preferred method currently, but considering recent natural gas price increases, other methods need to be evaluated. One of these methods may appear to be a step back in energy generation, but is a strong natural resource of Alberta—coal. Coal is plentiful and affordable in Alberta, but use of it is also accompanied by a host of environmental concerns and, consequently, its future exploitation is both likely and controversial.

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