NAIT launches Membrane Technology Assessment Program to test water treatment technologies

Published on September 26, 2022

Committed to helping industry develop technologies that improve the economic and environmental performance of the oil sands industry, NAIT’s Technology Access Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability has developed a one-of-a-kind Membrane Technology Assessment Program (MTAP), in partnership with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). 

At the heart of MTAP is a high pressure, high temperature unit designed to test new membrane water treatment technologies at temperatures and pressures that simulate oil sands field conditions during bitumen extraction. The unit, which was designed by NAIT and industry experts,  one of only a few in the world, includes storage tanks, pumps, heat exchangers, chemical treatment equipment and a vessel for testing polymeric membranes – a thin semi-permeable barrier that separates various materials from water. 

Currently, bitumen is recovered from oil sands ore using the common methods of steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) or mining. SAGD well sites use continuous forced steam to heat the oil, allowing it to flow more easily, and provide the pressure required to move the oil to the surface from underground oil sands deposits. Continuous steam generation makes the SAGD process energy and water-intensive which is currently offset through water and heat recovery. However, marginal improvements are still possible to achieve net zero goals, and new technologies are needed to make the process more economically and environmentally efficient.

Using the novel testing unit, MTAP will help industry partners implement and test membrane water treatment technology innovations that support improved environmental and economic benefits, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, operating costs, and improved water recycling processes.

The controlled lab setting allows companies the opportunity to de-risk their technologies from an environmental safety perspective before moving to field testing. 

NAIT researchers, through MTAP, will help develop industrial water technologies used in oil sands, and train and develop highly qualified people.

MTAP will also support companies focused on cleaner energy, including process water management and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, as the unit can be used to test membranes from other industries that use water in their operations.

The development of MTAP was supported by initial funding from COSIA, NAIT, federal funding from Prairies Economic Development Canada (formerly Western Economic Diversification Canada) and provincial funding from Alberta Innovates and the Ministry of Jobs, Economy, and Innovation (formerly Economic Development and Trade).

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“As one of Canada’s leading research polytechnics, NAIT partners with industry to create and improve processes, technologies, and services to address the complex challenges they face. Our partnership with COSIA and the development of MTAP is a perfect example of a multidisciplinary applied research collaboration that supports the responsible development of Alberta’s natural resources, and the transition to a low carbon economy.” 

Dr. Olle Lagerquist
Associate vice-president, NAIT Industry Solutions 

“COSIA is thrilled that the Membrane Technology Assessment Program at NAIT is up and running. It has been a long journey for both NAIT and COSIA to design and build this world-class test facility with the first contract for the design and construction executed in December 2017. But the wait has been worth it. Research and development of high temperature membranes suitable to work in oil sands in situ facilities has been a priority for COSIA members for more than a decade as the technology is capable of reducing GHG emissions, chemicals use, solids waste disposal, and water use in addition to simplifying the flowsheet and reducing operating costs.

Now that the facility is operational, the first series of membrane tests at the facility are being funded by COSIA and will run from Q4 2022 – Q1 2023, putting an exclamation point on the importance of this test facility to the oil sands in situ sector.”

John Brogly
Director, Water, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) a technical division of the Pathways Alliance