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Solvent screening for non-aqueous extraction of Alberta oil sands



Non-aqueous extraction of bitumen from oil sands has the potential to reduce fresh water demand of the extraction process and eliminate tailings ponds. In this study, different light hydrocarbon solvents, including aromatics, cycloalkanes, biologically derived solvents and mixtures of solvents were compared for extraction of bitumen from Alberta oil sands at room temperature and ambient pressure. The solvents are compared based on bitumen recovery, the amount of residual solvent in the extracted oil sands tailings and the content of fine solids in the extracted bitumen. The extraction experiments were carried out in a multistage process with agitation in rotary mixers and vibration sieving. The oil sands tailings were dried under ambient conditions, and their residual solvent contents were measured by a purge and trap system followed by gas chromatography. The elemental compositions of the extraction tailings were measured to calculate bitumen recovery. Supernatants from the extraction tests were centrifuged to separate and measure the contents of fine solid particles. Except for limonene and isoprene, the tested solvents showed good bitumen recoveries of around 95%. The solvent drying rates and residual solvent contents in the extracted oil sands tailings correlated to solvent vapour pressure. The contents of fine solids in the extracted bitumen (supernatant) were below 2.9% for all solvents except n-heptane-rich ones. Based on these findings, cyclohexane is the best candidate solvent for bitumen extraction, with 94.4% bitumen recovery, 5 mg of residual solvent per kilogram of extraction tailings and 1.4 wt% fine solids in the recovered bitumen. © 2012 Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering