Oilsands Pilot Plant A Game Changer


Sturgeon Creek Post - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The success of Western Hydrogen’s first pilot project is just the start of a revolution in oilsands upgrading, according to President Neil Camarta.

The small plant just east of Dow Chemical uses a radical new process to break down hydrocarbons, and could upgrade bitumen at less cost and with 90 per cent less greenhouse gas output, Camarta said at a special open house Thursday, Dec. 12.

Camarta, a former senior Shell manager who oversaw the construction of the Scotford upgrader, says his new project will soon change the industry.

“We’re going to bring upgrading back to Alberta,” he said, referring to the fact most bitumen is now being shipped away for processing.

Western Hydrogen’s process, developed first at the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, uses a careful mix of sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide to break down hydrocarbons.

The key to the technology is handling the high temperatures and pressures required. The reaction chamber reaches 900 C, which is more than twice the temperature of a normal oil refinery. It must also deal with a pressure of 2000 psig

Western Hydrogen uses cooled, pressurized nitrogen gas that surrounds and supports the hot reaction chamber while it protects the outer steel containment vessel from the heat.

The first $11 million pilot plant succeeded earlier this fall in producing hydrogen from heavy petroleum residue. It can also use glycol, algae and in theory, almost any carbon waste.

Camarta now wants to move on to a plant that will actually upgrade bitumen into crude oil. It will be built next to the existing pilot plant, and won’t be any larger.

When it works, Western Hydrogen will be able to sell a mini upgrader that should prove very appealing to the industry, Camarta said. This new kind of upgrader is smaller, cleaner and cheaper especially because it is so much smaller.

Fort Saskatchewan will become a centre of advance oilsands technology, he added.

He praised Fort officials for their help with the project to date.

“This is a business friendly town,” he said. “The rules are clear. You follow the rules and you get things done. This is a can get it done kind of town.”