Researching new heavy oil recovery techniques

Scientists at a BP-sponsored laboratory are searching for breakthroughs that could make heavy oil recovery more efficient - and therefore less greenhouse gas intensive

By some estimates heavy oil could account for 70% of the not-yet-tapped oil resources in the world. So one of the big questions facing BP and our industry as we work to meet rising global energy demand is how to responsibly recover these resources. 

Heavy oils such as bitumen or oil sands are very thick or even solid in form, which means they do not flow as freely to the surface as lighter crude oils – if at all. Some effective methods already exist for their recovery, but these tend to involve higher costs than conventional oil production and can require more energy. 

What researchers are aiming to discover

BP is funding a new heavy oil research laboratory at the University of Surrey in the UK. Staff at the BP Centre for Petroleum and Surface Chemistry, which officially opened in 2013, are studying the chemical composition of viscous crude oils and experimenting with new or enhanced methods for recovering them. 

Chris West, BP Vice President Heavy Oil, says: “We need the expertise of the staff at the centre to help us develop ways to make heavy oil recovery more efficient. More efficient recovery means less energy cost for every barrel of oil produced and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”

Designing a new steam technology

With our partners in our Canadian oil sands joint ventures we plan to use a steam-assisted method to heat up the heavy oil and reduce its viscosity, which allows it to flow. It is an effective method, but we believe the approach can be further improved as new techniques emerge and mature.

“To produce oil with steam takes energy in the form of fuel gas,” says West. “We’re interested in making that process as efficient and effective as we can – and that’s what the heavy oil research lab is focused on.”

A promising technology that is being tested and refined in the lab is BP Designer Steam™, which will use carefully selected chemical additives to improve the recovery rates of steam-based thermal methods. We see a valuable potential for this technology in our oil sands production activity, because the increased efficiency could reduce the amount of energy needed to recover each barrel of oil. We hope to be ready to apply this technology at our Canadian oil sands assets within two or three years of a successful trial.

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