If you were in Fort McMurray, Alta., in March, chances are you saw or heard about a wide load that made its way north on Highway 63. At 26-feet in diameter, 98-feet high and 270 tonnes, it took up the entire width of the highway, including the shoulder lane.

That load was one of the eight new coke drums for Suncor’s Upgrader 1.

No ordinary drum
Size and weight aside, this is no ordinary piece of industrial equipment. Its origins are steeped in Alberta’s oil sands history. It’s one of eight coke drums set to replace the original coke drums from 1967 at Suncor’s Base Plant site.

A large drum-shaped industrial equipment (coke drum) lying on its side. It is brown in colour with rivets along the side. A yellow crane is in the background.
A coke drum under construction at the fabricator’s facility in Edmonton, Alberta.

Upgrading the upgrader
Bitumen from our Base Plant and Fort Hills mining operations, as well as from In Situ is upgraded through a coking and distillation process in our two upgrading facilities, Upgrader 1 and Upgrader 2.

The Upgrader 1 (U1) Coke Drum Integrity project is a multi-year project to replace the eight coke drums, update ancillary systems and complete foundation and steel repairs to extend the life of U1 by approximately 30 years.

The project kicked off in 2020, with an extensive research and evaluation process to first determine whether the facility should be repaired or replaced entirely.

“After completing our research, we decided that replacing the coke drums was the best solution for our long-term business needs,” says Ryan Jackson, GM, Coke Drum Integrity Project. “Replacing the drums and ancillary systems, strengthening the foundations and structure and implementing extensive safety improvements will extend the U1 coker’s life by approximately 30 years.”

Eight tall steel cylindrical coker stacks of Upgrader 1 at Suncor’s Base Plant.
Coker drums in Upgrader 1 at Suncor’s Base Plant.

The modifications to the cokers at U1 are being conducted in a mix of live-plant and turnaround windows. “In order to do this safely and successfully, a number of groups need to work together as a perfectly integrated team,” says Ryan. “Each business area is committed to the success of the project.”

Built Alberta tough
The project requires the expertise of a community of contractors. “We are very proud of being able to engage Alberta-based companies for the project,” says Stephane Gagnon, VP, Operations Upgrading. “The coke drums are engineered in Calgary and largely fabricated in Edmonton, making this a made-in-Alberta, by Alberta and for Alberta project.”

While the remaining coke drums continue to be fabricated, teams from Suncor and our contractor partners are completing reinforcing the foundation for the coke drums, building up the main coke pit walls and making the required piping changes during the 2024 Base Plant turnaround. The coke drums will be replaced in 2025.

Cutting decks and decoking systems – a flat steel structure the height of a 2-3 storey building - sit above the coke drums.
Cutting decks and decoking systems are a flat steel structure the height of a 2-3 storey building that sit above the coke drums. They are being replaced with entirely new, modularized equipment currently being fabricated by a company in Alberta.

Big projects need big cranes, and arriving to our Base Plant site this summer is one of the largest cranes in the world, the Mammoet PTC210DS heavy lift crane.  The team will also be installing new “cutting deck” modules that sit above the coke drums with entirely new, modularized equipment currently being fabricated by a company in Nisku, which is just outside of Edmonton, Alta.

If you’re in area, watch for the fourth coke drum that’s set to be transported from Edmonton to Base Plant in the coming months.