Although heavy oil extraction has steadily increased over the last ten years, the processes used are very energy intensive, especially of natural gas and water. But the THAI™ system is more efficient, and this, and the increasing cost of conventional light oil, could lead to the widespread exploitation of heavy oil.
THAI™ uses a system where air is injected into the oil deposit down a vertical well and is ignited. The heat generated in the reservoir reduces the viscosity of the heavy oil, allowing it to drain into a second, horizontal well from where it rises to the surface.
THAI™ is very efficient, recovering about 70 to 80 per cent of the oil, compared to only 10 to 40 per cent using other technologies.
Duvernay Petroleum’s heavy oil field in Peace River contains 100 million barrels and this will be a first test of THAI™ on heavy oil, for which THAI™ was originally developed. Duvernay Petroleum has signed a contract with the Canadian firm Petrobank, which owns THAI™, to use the process.
The THAI™ process was first used by Petrobank at its Christina Lake site in the Athabasca Oil Sands, Canada, in June 2006 in a pilot operation which is currently producing 3,000 barrels of oil a day. This was on deposits of bitumen - similar to the surface coating of roads - rather than heavy oil.
Petrobank is applying for permission to expand this to 10,000 barrels a day though there is a potential for this to rise to 100,000.
The 50,000 acre site owned by Petrobank contains an estimated 2.6 billion barrels of bitumen. The Athabasca Oil Sands region is the single largest petroleum deposit on earth, bigger than that of Saudi Arabia.
Professor Greaves, of the University’s Department of Chemical Engineering, said: “When the Canadian engineers at the Christina Lake site turned on the new system, in three separate sections, it worked amazingly well and oil is being produced at twice the amount that they thought could be extracted.