Engineering researcher is looking for the cleanest ways to produce and transport bitumen

Engineering researcher is looking for the cleanest ways to produce and transport bitumen UAlberta engineering graduate student Balwinder Nimana, along with his research colleagues, is developing a computer model to account for greenhouse gas emissions in the production and transport of bitumen.
Edmonton—Alberta’s Climate Change Strategy requires facilities that emit more than 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year to reduce the emissions by 12 per cent, either through technological changes or by paying $15 per greenhouse gas tonne emitted to the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund.

Alberta’s oil sands operations made up around 23 per cent of GHG emissions in Alberta in 2011, and are finding ways to reduce their emissions.

But how do we measure emissions? And how do we know if targets are being met? Award-winning University of Alberta graduate student Balwinder Nimana, along with his research colleagues, is developing a computer model to find out. The model estimates project-specific emissions in oil sands activities from recovery and extraction, accounting for surface mining, steam-assisted gravity drainage, and upgrading operations. With this information, he can recommend improvements to reduce emissions.

He’s also comparing the costs of transporting products such as synthetic crude oil by rail and pipeline.

Much of Nimana’s work involves gathering data from refereed journals, government, and industry about on the fuel used in oil sands operations.

He’s using that information in a model he is developing to quantify oil sands greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). Specifically, his model estimates how much diesel is used by the trucks and shovels used in surface mining, how much natural gas is used to heat water and generate steam required to operate the SAGD wells, and how much synthetic crude oil is formed when the bitumen is upgraded.

“To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s important for us to understand the life cycle emissions associated with the oil sands compared to crude oils produced from other parts of the world,” says Surindar Singh, executive director of Alberta Innovates – Engery and Environment Solutions. “Balwinder’s research will provide a comprehensive, independent, science-based assessment to provide greater understanding in this area, and is a strong example of the innovation and collaboration that will help us reach our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.”

Nimana has created a second computer model with his colleagues to compare both the costs and the environmental impacts of transporting bitumen and synthetic crude oil by rail and pipeline. He considers, for instance, the effects of carrying more fuel for long distances on both the costs and the amount of carbon dioxide released. Just how much fuel does Canada transport? In 2012, we exported roughly 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and the Gulf Coast. By 2020, the number of barrels per day is expected to increase by 450,000.

One of the biggest challenges in this work is finding and gathering data. In order to ensure reasonable accuracy, Nimana performs a sensitivity analysis; that is, he varies his parameters to see whether the results vary.

This work is timely and relevant, and highly rewarding. Nimana knows he’s contributing to the development of new policies. He and his colleagues receive immediate and meaningful feedback from industry partners and have opportunities to build relationships with them. Ultimately, Nimana will be able to project how greenhouse gas-intensive various fuels produced from Alberta oil sands bitumen (synthetic crude, diesel, and petrol) are, compared to fuels produced from conventional crude oils (for instance, light oils found in Alaska, California, and the Middle East).

Nimana has already received considerable recognition for his work; last fall, he received two awards from the University of Alberta, the Sadler Graduate Scholarship in Mechanical Engineering and the RR Gilpin Memorial Scholarship. An MSc student in Engineering Management, Nimana is part of a research program led by mechanical engineering professor Amit Kumar, who holds the Industrial Research Chair in Energy and Environmental Systems Engineering funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Cenovus Energy Inc., Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, and Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions.