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SDTC awards Nsolv $13M to commercialize warm solvent technology for heavy oil extraction; 80% reduction in GHG emissions

Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is awarding Nsolv $13 million in grant funding to commercialize its field-tested, proprietary warm solvent technology for in situ heavy oil extraction without the use of steam.

Among its benefits, the technology reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by lowering the amount of energy needed to remove heavy oil from the ground. Nsolv’s process uses zero water and very little natural gas to heat the solvent, resulting in an 80% reduction in GHG emissions compared to existing extraction methods.

These benefits have been realized through lab testing and Nsolv’s pilot project at Fort McKay, Alberta, which produced its 80,000th barrel in January 2016. Nsolv has also been awarded Clean50 and Clean16 awards from Delta Management Group.

Nsolv is in the process of finalizing a partnership with a major heavy oil producer to construct a commercial-scale facility. Nsolv technology performs well, even in today’s low oil price environment, as it is commercially viable at between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels per day. Other extraction methods are not currently commercially viable at this scale.

The technology. Nsolv’s patented technology uses warm solvent vapor to extract bitumen in situ. The Nsolv process supplants existing in situ technologies, such as steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), which rely on significant amounts of water and natural gas. Using solvent vapor offers the added benefit of partial in situ upgrading.

The heated solvent vapor is injected into a bitumen reservoir. Once inside the reservoir, the solvent condenses, subsequently dissolving the bitumen, with the resulting liquids flowing by gravity to a production well.

With Athabasca bitumen, a 25-30 °C temperature rise typically reduces the bitumen viscosity by a factor of 100, Nsolv says. Thus, a small temperature increase to the solvent helps it mobilize and dissolve bitumen to form an ultra-low viscosity fluid that can be produced at high rates.

As bitumen is dissolved into the solvent, valuable components are extracted while coke-forming asphaltenes, sulphur, heavy metals and carbon residue remain in the reservoir. This results in a partially upgraded 13° to 16° API oil (typical bitumen has an API of about 8°) and no coke waste going to landfills.

The process uses commercially proven horizontal-well technology widely implemented in current heavy oil recovery operations.


The Nsolv process requires a substantially pure solvent in order to function effectively; therefore, the first step in the process is to distill the solvent, removing non-condensable gases such as methane, turning it into a high-purity solvent.

The high-purity solvent is then warmed and turned into solvent vapor. The warm solvent vapor is pumped into the injection well at a rapid pace. When it reaches the extraction chamber, it condenses and dissolves the bitumen, draining downward to the production well as a solution of both solvent and oil. Naturally occurring water and non-condensable gases are also carried along and out of the reservoir. Coke-forming asphaltenes are sequestered.

Upon being pumped up to surface, the partially upgraded oil mixed with solvent is separated into three components: oil for sale; solvent; and naturally occurring water. The oil is sent to refineries for further processing. The solvent is pumped back into the separator and re-purified before being recycled back into the reservoir. Gaseous impurities removed from the solvent, such as methane, are used to fire up the solvent heater.

Nsolv estimates that a solvent quantity equivalent to 20-30% of the extracted oil must be added to the system as make-up. As the chamber grows, the make-up solvent is continually replenished. At the end of a well’s life, the solvent can be recovered and reused on another well or marketed. Click to enlarge.

Nsolv has more than 400 registered patent claims for the various stages of its heated solvent extraction process.



This may not quite revive the tar sand industry, but it will surely avoid the extraction of remote natural gas in northern Canada which is necessary to continue the industry. Ironically much of that gas could come from North Dakota from bottled flares. That would be a happy ending to the Keystone debacle.

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