Salt of the Earth
REDUCE COSTS, REDUCE EMISSIONS— that’s been the unofficial mantra of the oil patch in 2016. But it’s a quest that Neil Camarta, CEO of the Calgary-based Field Upgrading, has been on for decades. As the name implies, Camarta’s company builds upgraders that remove impurities like sulfur and heavy metals from raw Alberta bitumen. But the catch is, Field Upgrading appears to have found a way to do that by using little more than salt—saving plenty of dollars and environmental demerit points in the process.
In June, the company unveiled its 10 b/d pilot plant northeast of Edmonton, where bitumen is combined with molten sodium to extract the non-petroleum impurities. “If you just add sodium to heavy oil, magic happens,” Camarta says. “The sodium takes the dirty out of ‘dirty oil.’” The discovery was made not in Alberta, but—fittingly—in Salt Lake City, Utah. That’s where Camarta had been sending hockey puck-sized samples of Alberta bitumen to a team of chemical engineers who were working on the sodium upgrading technology. When the process proved successful, Camarta bought the rights to it.
The Field Upgrading pilot plant produces no emissions of its own, however it does require electricity. And while Camarta has already scaled up the plant to 10 b/d from an initial batch reactor “the size of an ice cream pail,” he already has his sights set on producing 2,500 barrels of upgraded bitumen daily. With an estimated $10-per-barrel operating cost, the pilot plant doesn’t just contribute less greenhouse gas than a conventional upgrader, it also comes in at half the price.