Sept/Oct 2007

Engineering Exchange

Making things better in the oil sands: Colt Engineering

By H. Weldon

Make a plan and work to it! Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. In the early eighties, Colt Engineering made a strategic decision to get involved in the oil sands; they believed that the oil sands were the future, and their decision paid off. On the flip side, there’s a certain Texas oil baron who, in the late seventies, said that mining the oil sands would never be profitable, and opted out of investing. He must be kicking himself now…

A powerful partnership

Colt began its foray into the oil sands by working for Syncrude. Larry Benke, managing director, WorleyParsons Canada, was a project manager at the time. “Since then, the company has participated and grown with the industry, successfully working on multiple projects for several of the industry leaders.”

When Colt first arrived on the scene, Syncrude was moving away from draglines to the truck-and-shovel method of mining. That was a huge change that contributed strongly to making the oil sands profitable. Today, the expanding mine faces are kilometres away from the processing plants, making the truck-and-shovel system, once so practical, potentially inefficient on its own. Cosyn, a division of Colt, worked with Syncrude in developing the hydrotransport system to pipeline an oil sands slurry from truck “dumps” to the plants - again an enabling improvement to the mining system. “The holy grail for the future,” Benke explained, “is to separate the sand from the oil right at the mine face, eliminating the need to transport it at all.” Many of the oil sands producers are now experimenting with various ways of accomplishing this.

In 1991 Colt secured an important alliance with Syncrude, eventually building a dedicated team of 500 people dubbed “CoSyn,” and devoted to Syncrude’s sustaining capital projects. CoSyn’s I3 initiative is a special program that encourages individuals to innovate - and recognizes them for it. The ideas that CoSyn’s people have come up with have translated to annual cost savings for their customer in the range of $25 million per year.

An example is the replacement of “hard” metallurgy liners in the enormous bins and primary separation vessels. Traditionally, this involved cutting out the old liner and welding in plates to create a new liner. Workers needed to spend long hours inside the bin, using scaffolding to get to the bottom, and working in a confined space. The forward-thinking people at CoSyn designed a way to laser scan the vessel to get the exact dimensions. Once they had that data, a complete new liner could be prebuilt to spec and then popped into the bin. The result was a marked decrease in manhours spent at the bottom of a vessel and less use of scaffolding. They won a Presidents Safety Award from Syncrude for lowering the risk to the employees, and just as importantly, shaved weeks off the turn-around time - something that’s always appreciated.

Colt Engineering is focused on assisting their customers in developing new technology, or tweaking existing technologies, in the interest of improving efficiency and to continue to drive down the cost of mining the oil sands. These days, Colt is involved in a number of projects related to managing tailings. By developing ways to maximize the re-use of water, and speed up the process for recovering the sand component, less fresh water is required and the land can more quickly be returned to its natural state.

Multiple projects on the go

Colt has been a leader in applying new geomatics technology to the oil sands. Information is gathered via satellite imagery, or other automated means, and the data is then processed to paint a picture of the site. This technology can be used to develop and manage mines or to model the progression of tailings ponds. “By overlaying on satellite imagery, we can work out what the ponds will look like over the years,” Benke explained.

At Suncor, Colt engineers have been busy executing projects in tailings and debottlenecking. They have also completed 75 per cent of the engineering on a new extraction plant and are conducting scoping studies for a potential new mine. Similarly, in a joint venture with another engineering firm, Colt is designing the next expansion phase for the Athabasca Oil Sands project (a Shell, Chevron and Marathon joint venture).

Merging creates synergies

Colt’s recent merger with WorleyParsons has brought exciting synergies. New capabilities acquired through WorleyParsons have given Colt a broader spectrum of knowledge and service offerings such as in-mine materials handling. HGE, part of the new family, is a minerals engineer active in Canada and globally. Benke is looking forward to new possibilities: “We are excited about working with HGE and expanding into a more diverse minerals capability.”

Colt is also now working closely with FlintTransfield Services as part of the “One Team” alliance performing asset management services for Suncor. WorleyParsons and Transfield have been leaders in this combined engineering and construction approach in Australia. “We are thrilled to now bring these ideas and concepts to the oil sands” says Benke.

In an age where technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, it’s nice to see that something you worked on over 20 years ago is still being used today. In the mid-eighties, Larry Benke was part of a team that designed some very large modules that needed to be transported from Edmonton to the Syncrude site. The logistics challenge was to transport the 250-modules, and specifically getting them over a bridge with no more than half of the truck/train on the bridge at any given time. Much tinkering to the design was necessary before the truck/train and modules were within the weight limits, as well as long enough to go over the bridge. The entire procession set off, police escort and all, with the intention of going through the town of Fort McMurray very early in the morning. To their surprise, the people of Fort Mac had gotten wind of this and turned out to watch. “It was like a parade!” Benke exclaimed. Over the years, Benke has witnessed similar hauling of large modules and was recently surprised to see the same bridge beams he utilized for his truck/train are still being used today.

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