Bitumen, a crude oil found in Athabasca oil sands deposits, is an extra-heavy oil characterized by an API gravity less than 10° and viscosity greater than 105 mPa.s. It is comprised of a mixture of hydrocarbons with non-metallic derivatives that occur naturally in the Cretaceous McMurray formation and elsewhere globally.
The main use of bitumen is as feedstock to produce transportation fuels and other petroleum products. In oil sands mining operations, the bitumen can be upgraded to synthetic crude oil, via coking and/or hydroprocessing, followed by more conventional refining operations. Recent efforts have been focused on alternative applications for bitumen, including high-value carbon materials such as activated carbon, synthetic graphene and carbon nanotubes.
The Athabasca region currently produces about 3.2 MMbbl/d of bitumen, of which about 1.5 MMbbl/d is produced from open pit mining operations. The oil sands mining sector has grown from its founding in 1967 at the Great Canadian Oil Sands project (now Suncor), as a relatively small industry in the 1970’s through the 1990’s to very rapid expansion and growth in the 21st century. The Athabasca deposit has 161 billion barrels of reserves, representing the third largest oil reserves in the world, that can be economically recovered with current commercial technologies. This resource base is expected to support stable production with opportunities for growth for the next 4-6 decades and is critical for the ongoing energy security of North America. There are currently six commercial oil sands mines operated by Suncor, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd and Imperial Oil. Bitumen’s value is benchmarked against West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Western Canada Select crudes.
In oil sands mining operations, two types of solvent are used in the extraction of bitumen – naphtha and a paraffinic solvent. Naphtha is a mixture of hydrocarbons comprised of aromatics, paraffins, iso-paraffins, naphthalenes and olefins. It derived from bitumen during upgrading operations as the ~177°C fraction obtained during distillation or fractionation operations. A paraffin is a straight chain hydrocarbon (alkane) characterized by the number of carbon atoms and a narrower distillation cut. These solvents are typically valued at WTI pricing or greater.