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Bitumen from the oil sands has been degraded by millions of years of organic processes, resulting in a thick, viscous substance with a deficiency of hydrogen. Upgrading either adds hydrogen or removes carbon in order to achieve a balanced, lighter hydrocarbon that is more valuable and easier to refine.
The upgrading process also removes contaminants such as heavy metals, salt, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur to turn bitumen or heavy oil into synthetic crude oil (SCO).
The upgrading process:
- Step 1: distillation. Separates various compounds by physical properties.
- Step 2: coking, hydro-conversion, solvent deasphalting. Improves hydrogen to carbon ratio.
- Step 3: hydrotreating. Removes contaminants such as sulphur.
- Upgrading also provides a bridge to other energy processing opportunities.
- upgrader “off-gases” such as ethane for petrochemical feedstock.
- More market access for higher value products
- improved facilities and transportation infrastructure
- experience with environmental technologies (carbon sequestration)
- skilled workforce and jobs in Alberta
- Bitumen-Royalty In-Kind (BRIK)
- Incremental Ethane Extraction Program (IEEP) bolsters energy processing activity in the province, by extracting ethane from the off-gases that result from bitumen refining or upgrading.
- Hydrocarbon Upgrading Task Force (HUTF) in 2006 created an goal of ensuring that one third of Alberta’s oil sands was sold as bitumen, one third was upgraded to synthetic crude oil and one third was processed to oil-based products and petrochemicals.
Alberta Upgrader Projects