Alchemical Engineering Marvel Environmental Howzat Peak Energy Peak Oil Petrolheads Tarred Sands

The Trouble With Tar

The bother with bitumen is that it’s as far from being a liquid as it is possible for a mixed bag of hydrocarbons to get without it being solid, flaky coal. If crude petroleum oil is a cup of tea with a tablespoonful of sugar syrup stirred into it, heavy oil can be like burnt toffee charred and stuck to the bottom of the pan, making the whole place stink of fence weatherisation paint.

A couple of decades ago, thick oil deposits were ruled out as uneconomic to mine, but as petroleum oil prices have risen, tar and bitumen are now back on the driller’s menu. The oil and gas industry claim that advances in technology have made these resources viable to exploit, and to some extent this must be right. However the rising prices for liquid transport fuels over the last decade is probably the main motivation for going after these dirty “unconventional” fossil fuels. It certainly seems to be the key stimulus for a new flurry of activity in this area.

[ Image Credit : Amjad Ali Shah ]

The world’s dense oil resources finally rose above controversy to make it into BP’s annual energy review in the BP’s 2010 Statistical Review (the data for 2009). Note the difference with the previous year :-

[ Image Credit : BP ]

[ Image Credit : BP ]

This difference in the Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) between the years is noted as being “due to an increase in Venezuelan official reserves”, and the data taken from the OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin, which includes “proven reserves of the Magna Reserve Project in the Orinoco Belt” :-

At a meeting held by the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) held at the Institute of Physics (IoP) two days ago in London, called “Catalysis and Chemical Engineering 2013”, I chatted with a research scientist about the methods for extracting oil from seams of “tar”. Our conversation had its focus on a poster on the boards, summarising a paper that I think is this :-

Optimization of the CAPRI Process for Heavy Oil Upgrading: Effect of Hydrogen and Guard Bed
by Abarasi Hart, Amjad Shah, Gary Leeke, Malcolm Greaves and Joseph Wood, of the Universities of Birmingham and Bath, published in the journal Industrial and Engineering Chemical Research, 24 April 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ie400661x

( Other work previously :,,,,, )

The basic idea is to lay a pipe at the bottom of the seam of oil, then burn the edge of the seam, causing the oil to melt somewhat, pass into the pipe and get catalysed into a lighter oil, and then pumped out :-

Of course, burning oil underground has potential issues. Nothing is ever as neat as the scholarly diagrams.

The idea of packing the pipe with catalyst, rather than trying to run the catalyst through with the oil, shows some potential. It might be cheaper and more energy efficient to do this, rather than using electricity to heat the oil to make it flow. I mean, if you are going to use electricity to deliver liquid transport fuels, you might as well have electric drive transport vehicles instead.

“Direct Electrical Heating of Flowlines – Guide to Uses and Benefits : Publish Date: 1/24/2012 : Author: Rebecca Fisher Roth : Conference: OTC Brazil (OTC-22631-PP) : Abstract: Direct Electrical Heating (DEH) of flowlines is a flow assurance technology that enables development of fields with heavy oil and fields in arctic regions, fields with long subsea tiebacks, and marginally profitable offshore fields. By allowing for operation in conditions outside of the hydrate region and/or above the wax appearance temperature, DEH opens up areas of development not otherwise considered viable by production companies and can significantly reduce CAPEX and OPEX for already-viable fields.”

I wonder about the energy balance of the mining of heavy oils – how much energy needs to be used to mine these hydrocarbons ? And what of the risks – such as permanent underground fires, toxic surface “tailing ponds” from further refining, or major strata collapse ? Wouldn’t it just be easier, cleaner and cheaper to make energy on the surface of the Earth from realtime sunshine, instead of underground fossil sunshine ?

[ Image Credit : BP ]

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