Twenty years ago, Norm Weigelt, Steve Morrison and Robert Bailey watched as hydrotransport – a new technology they helped nurture – began operating in Syncrude’s North Mine.
The process would ultimately transform oil sands mining.
Up until that point, Syncrude had primarily used draglines and bucketwheel reclaimers to load conveyor belts that took dry oil sand from its original Base Mine to the Extraction plant. With the opening of North Mine in October 1997, Syncrude launched the first full-scale commercial application of the technology it had invented several years prior. From then on, shovels would dig the ore and load haul trucks, which carry the ore and dump it into crushers. The crushed oil sand goes into a surge pile and on to a mix box, where it’s mixed with warm water. The resulting slurry is pumped through a pipeline to Extraction. As it travels, the oil sand breaks down further as bitumen begins to separate, resulting in improved recovery rates. The new process also led to increased energy efficiency and reduced extraction water temperatures compared to the original technology.
“Using shovels, trucks and hydrotransport allows us to access ore bodies much quicker. Historically, we had to strip vast areas of overburden in order to set up draglines and bucketwheels and conveyors to move oil sands,” explains Lorne Shearing, Syncrude’s Manager – Mildred Lake Mining.
It lets us expose a much smaller area in order to begin mining the ore. And the cost to run hydrotransport is significantly less. There is also an environmental impact because hydrotransport has helped reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
The move to the new technology began with the Extraction Auxiliary Production Systems (EAPS) pilot project in 1993. Robert, Norm and Steve were part of a team of eight employees from Mining and Extraction who worked to prove the technology on EAPS.
“There was four of us who worked as process operators in Extraction and we were paired with four heavy equipment operators from the mine,” says Robert.
The heavy equipment operators from the mine and process operators from Extraction also learned a great deal from each other.
“We shared experiences and taught each other a lot,” says Norm, who worked as a process operator in Extraction plants 4, 5 and 6 prior to joining EAPS. “We pumped slurry in Extraction in the form of tailings so that experience helped. The mining guys taught us a lot about that side of the process. There were a few bugs but everybody worked hard to work them out. You put your mind to it and you can make everything work.”
One of the obstacles was overcome by “blending” ores to prevent the lines from clogging.
“We found it difficult to pump ore that was 14 or 15 per cent grade. We were plugging up lines so we had to be a little bit more creative by taking different grades of ore from two different shovels and blending it together to give us an average of 10 to 12 per cent ore,” Steve says. “That’s why the North Mine trains incorporated double dump hoppers so ores could be blended together.”
Twenty years later, Steve, Norm and Robert are very proud of their roles in helping usher in a technology that has changed the industry.
“I remember Suncor coming over to watch how it worked. There were people from Russia, Germany and all over the world coming to our site to check it out,” Robert says.
Along the way, we challenged ourselves to make the process better. We learned a lot from each other. The great thing is anybody who has the drive and wants to learn can get themselves into a role like that at Syncrude.
Norm’s experience with EAPS taught him new technologies brings opportunities for employees to take on new roles and challenges.
“The great thing is you have a say in what’s going on. You get to share your ideas. Everybody gets together and makes it work.”
Steve agrees. “Syncrude has been great at giving opportunities when new projects and initiatives come up,” he says. “We’re all proud we were the pioneers of a technology that is being used by the rest of the industry.”
Lorne sees Syncrude’s investment in R&D matched by the commitment of its employees to ensure new technologies work in the operation.
“In my 30 years at Syncrude, one thing has remained constant. Technologies will always change but Syncrude’s employees will learn how to apply them to our operation and improve the processes to make that technology work to improve our performance.”
(Pictured above is Syncrude’s Mildred Lake Mine Replacement (MLMR) project Screening Plant featuring four hydrotransport lines.)