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Going with the Flow

Moving ideas through the pipeline from discovery to innovation

Alberta’s oil sands represent one of the world’s largest reserves of oil. Getting the material to market is no easy task, and considerable attention has been paid to what takes place in pipelines used to transport oil sands products. No one knows this better than Dr. Sean Sanders, University of Alberta professor and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes. His research focuses on pipelines and pipeline transport as hot-spots for process innovations that will help the oil sands industry evolve and improve.

Dr. Sanders sees pipelines as more than simply a means of transportation; they are “process vessels” that play an important role in enabling the efficient flow of one of Canada’s most precious resources.

The types of processes that Dr. Sanders refers to vary on a case-by-case basis, but examples include breaking down substances through intense mixing or adding clarifying agents to bring together fine particles in order to avoid blockages and make materials easier to move.

Another example is the separation of bitumen, the very thick form of petroleum, from mixtures with water and sand, which is how it is found in Canada’s oil sands. Because bitumen has about the same density as water, it can be nearly impossible to separate unless it is broken down and attached to air bubbles, which allow it to float to the top of an oil sand mixture.

According to Dr. Sanders, if any of the processes to separate the bitumen fails, companies will see poor recovery of the resource that has cost so much in time and money to dig up.

Helping companies identify how and when these processes are failing, as well as developing tools to prevent unwanted reactions such as blockages or oxygen dissolution that lead to pipeline wear, are some of the ways Dr. Sanders’ research is making a difference.

One of his accomplishments in recent years has been the development of a meter that can determine how much energy is needed to move mixtures of bitumen, water and sand down the pipeline at specific points in the line, which allows companies to optimize energy consumption during pipeline transport.

As the Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes, Dr. Sanders’ work contributes to more cost-effective transport methods for industry. The research also pays dividends by ultimately enhancing energy efficiency of resource extraction while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water consumption, and land disturbance.

The environment has been a prime motivation for his work. “The world is going to continue to need more energy, and we want to be able to provide that more safely and sustainably for the next generations,” Sanders notes.

He acknowledges that, while some projects directly address industry needs, fundamental research that enhances our ability to innovate is equally important.

Examples include improving measurements of how particles affect fluid flow and developing models to show how particles collide during high-flow conditions.

The measurements are critical in helping individuals who work on computational models to validate their work. Computational models are used when companies want to understand a specific process or reaction taking place, but they cannot necessarily see it or run experiments to figure it out.

Thanks to these and other contributions, the industry has no doubt seen great improvements. However, the need to monitor and control the processes within the pipelines is never-ending.

So, just like bitumen flowing from the mine to the extraction plant, Dr. Sanders and colleagues will continue to pump their ideas through the pipeline from discovery to innovation — a dynamic process needed to maintain a competitive and sustainable Canadian oil sands industry.

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