A clean way to extract tar sands oil?

This is pretty amazing. Researchers at Penn State have developed a solvent that quickly and cleanly removes bitumen from oil sands. Watch the video, it’s sort of the ShamWow of oil production:

The oil floats to the top, with the solvent suspended beneath it and the sand sinking to the bottom. In the video, researcher Aron Lupinsky says the process leaves the sand completely clean – without a single trace of hydrocarbons. And the solvent can then be reused.

“This allows us to get to these oil reserves without destroying the environment,” Lupinsky says.

It goes without saying that this new solvent, if brought to scale, could be a game-changer.

SolveClimate News reported in January on the effort to find a solvent that would make oil sands extraction less energy intensive.

Tar sands oil is extracted either through strip mining or in situ processing, where the oil is extracted underground before being pumped to the surface. Both process use steam, which requires tremendous amounts of water and energy. This contributes to the tar sands’ larger carbon footprint, and requires massive, toxic tailing ponds that have been killing ducks and polluting nearby waterways.

Currently, according to the SolveClimate article, the Canadian government doesn’t regulate emissions from oil sands productions, so producers would have no incentive to use the solvent unless it were cheaper than older technologies. We don’t know what’s in the stuff or how much it costs, so it’s not possible to say at this point whether there will be a net environmental benefit, or whether it will be used at all.

And even if a less carbon-intensive extraction method is found, there are still environmental concerns around the transportation of the oil, and the greenhouse gas emissions from burning it.

Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a cost-effective, environmentally benign way to extract oil from tar sands could change the energy picture.

3 thoughts on “A clean way to extract tar sands oil?

  1. I’m skeptical of anything that claims to be 100% effective. Really, no hydrocarbons left on the sand, period?

    And what is this miracle solvent that leaves the oil intact for energy purposes? And how much is recoverable? How much remains somewhere in the environment, and with what effects? How quickly does it degrade into a nonuseable state, either by accumulating impurities or by chemical alteration?

    This doesn’t solve the problem of the high corrosive quality of the oil, however. So yes, transportation does remain a big problem.

  2. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound like it would work very well for the deeper reserves where currently steam is injected underground to get the oil to separate. And even for the mined sands, much of the energy is used just for digging the stuff out of the ground and transporting it in giant trucks back to the processing facilities. But if it works better than the warm water they use now, it could have a beneficial role.

  3. Yeah – that’s the part where I was unclear. I emailed the lead researcher for clarification on whether it was intended for in situ or conventional processing, but haven’t heard back (I imagine he’s fielding quite a few phone calls these days). I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t work for those deep deposits if you injected it at high pressure, but I’m hardly an expert on the matter.