Experimental optimization of catalytic process in situ for heavy-oil and bitumen upgrading

A. Shah*, R. P. Fishwick, G. A. Leeke, J. Wood, S. P. Rigby, M. Greaves

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)


The worldwide conventional crude-oil demand is on the rise, and because of the rising prices, unconventional oils are becoming more economically attractive to extract and refine. However, technological innovation is needed if heavier oil supplies are to be exploited further. Toe-to-heel air injection (THAI) and its catalytic add-on processes (CAPRI) combine in-situ combustion with catalytic upgrading using an annular catalyst packed around the horizontal producer well. These techniques offer potentially higher recovery levels and lower environmental impact than alternative technologies (e.g., steam-based techniques). An experimental study is reported concerning the optimization of catalyst type and operating conditions for use in the THAI-CAPRI process. The feed oil was supplied from the Whitesands THAI-pilot trial. Experiments were carried out using microreactors containing 10 g of catalyst, with oil flow of 1 mL/min and gas flow of 0.5 L/min, under different temperatures, pressures, and gas environments. Catalysts tested included alumina-supported CoMo, NiMo, and ZnO/CuO. It was found that there was a trade-off in operation temperature between upgrading performance and catalyst lifetime. At a pressure of 20 bar, operation at 500°C led to an average of 6.1°API upgrading of THAI oil to 18.9°API, but catalyst lifetime was limited to 1.5 hours. Operation at 420°C was found to be a suitable compromise, with upgrading by an average of 1.6°API, and sometimes up to 3°API, with catalyst lifetime extended to 77.5 hours. Coke deposition occurred within the first few hours of the reaction, such that the catalyst pore space became blocked. However, upgrading continued, suggesting that thermal reactions or reactions catalysed by hydrogen transfer from the coke itself play a part in the upgrading reaction mechanism. The CAPRI process was relatively insensitive to changes in reaction-gas medium, gas-flow rate, and pressure, suggesting that the dissolution of hydrogen or methane from the gas phase does not play a key role in the upgrading reactions. By careful control of the temperature and oil-flow rate in the in-situ CAPRI process, additional upgrading compared with the THAI process alone may be effected, resulting in a more-valuable produced oil, which is easier to transport. Copyright 2011

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-47
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Canadian Petroleum Technology
Issue number11-12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemical Engineering(all)
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology


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