CALGARY, Alberta, July 14 (Reuters) - Suncor Energy Inc has launched a pilot project to replace the high-pressure steam used to extract bitumen from oil sands with radio frequency technology developed by U.S. defence contractor Harris Corporation.
Canada's largest oil and gas company, which produces 440,000 barrels per day from Alberta's oil sands, said on Tuesday that the technology could significantly reduce costs, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.
Alberta's oil sands are the world's third-largest crude reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and a leading source of U.S. crude imports.
However, breakeven costs for new projects are some of the highest globally. And the carbon-intensive process of using steam to liquefy the tar-like bitumen trapped in the sand has attracted fierce opposition from environmental groups.
"Anytime you can develop a resource that is more environmentally benign and economically advantageous is going to be a strategic advantage. I would say it's going to be critical to the long-term success of oil sands," said Mark Bohm, manager in situ technology development at Suncor.
The small-scale pilot will run for two years at Suncor's Dover oil sands project in northern Alberta. Production rates are expected to be equivalent to a normal thermal project but use 75 percent less energy.
Harris approached Suncor with the idea of using radio waves in oilfields more than five years ago. It is a partner in the $44 million ($34.55 million) project along with Devon Energy Corp, CNOOC Ltd subsidiary Nexen and Alberta's Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp.
The technology uses a generator on the surface connected by a cable to transmit radio frequency energy down the well and turn the steel liner into an antennae, heating the bitumen.
Small amounts of light hydrocarbons like propane or butane, which can be recycled, are pumped into the well to enable the bitumen to flow at around 70 Celsius (158 Fahrenheit), well below the 200C reached when using high-pressure steam.
Suncor turned on power at the Dover project at the end of May and said it will take up to a couple of months to warm the reservoir to the point where solvent can be injected.
Gary Bunio, Suncor's general manager of oil sands strategic technology, said the pilot will help determine how much could be saved in operating and capital costs and whether it was worth the investment even in the current low oil price environment.
($1 = 1.2735 Canadian dollars)
(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Christian Plumb)
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