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Upgrading Bitumen into SCO

Upgrading is the process of converting bitumen into synthetic crude oil (SCO) so that it can be handled by oil refineries. This is usually done through fractional distillation, hydrocracking, or chemical treatment at an upgrader facility.

While fractional distillation separates compounds according to their boiling points, hydrocracking units crack the heavy molecules in bitumen into smaller molecules, or distillates. This is achieved via catalytic reactions in the presence of hydrogen.

Key fact: Around 35% of Alberta’s bitumen is upgraded into light/sweet synthetic crude oil before being sold to downstream refineries

Meanwhile, hydrotreating removes unwanted heteroatoms, like oxygen, sulphur, nitrogen, and metals. As a result, upgraded synthetic crude oil is much higher quality than heavy diluted bitumen.

Alternatively, partial upgrading can be used to retain the heavy and sour properties of bitumen while optimising its transportation. The diluent used to reduce bitumen’s viscosity during transportation is very expensive and limits pipeline capacity. Partial upgrading improves the quality of the bitumen enough to eliminate the use of diluent and improve pipeline utilisation.

Key fact: The diluent used during bitumen transport takes up 30% of a pipeline’s volume

Benefits

  • Better quality

  • Higher marketability

  • Increased pipeline capacity

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