Whether it’s your nose, or a fluid coker, a clogged snout is no fun. It’s a good thing that Bingfeng Gu, was determined to clear the problem.

Fluid cokers are the workhorses of our Syncrude Mildred Lake site’s upgrader. They convert thick and heavy oil sands bitumen into lighter materials. Every fluid coker has six cyclones in its reactor. Fouling occurs when coke builds up inside these cyclones, predominantly on the gas outlet tube and snout. Just like a human nose, when restricted, these cyclones can’t breathe well.

The fluid cokers have been experiencing cyclone fouling since the start of operations at Syncrude. Fouling results in reduced product yield, increased steam consumption and eventually decreases fluid coker capacity and how long they can run without needing maintenance.

Syncrude pioneered the ‘online lancing system’ which uses high-pressure water to clear coke buildup on the cyclone’s gas outlet tube and snout. Think of it like using a neti pot to clear your sinuses, where the neti pot is the ‘lancing system’, the spout is the ‘lancing nozzle’, and your nose is the ‘lancing port.’ While this process was successfully adapted by other North American refineries, the Syncrude team wasn’t satisfied with the results and continued several improvement projects, including installing angled snout lancing ports which were ultimately not used due to difficulty with mounting a new lancing machine.

A lancing system platform is attached to the fluid coker tower. The railing of the platform are yellow in colour. You can see two people standing in blue PPE and orange hard hats.
A lancing system is raised into position next to a fluid coker and is attached to it through a lancing port. High-pressure water is pumped through the lancing system to cut and remove coke build up in the cyclones.

Bingfeng Gu, Fluid Coker Specialist, Oil Sands, had been working on the lancing system for the last few years.  He had identified several deficiencies in it including misaligned lancing ports and snouts, as well as weak lancing tools that were not designed for high temperatures. Fixing these issues could take years and require a significant financial investment; but it was his back-of-the-napkin idea that turned out to be a game changer.

“Last summer, I started crafting a cardboard model of our lancing system. That’s when I had an “Aha” moment: Why can’t we use our lancing machine to push bigger and more powerful lancing tools through the previously installed but never used new angled ports? We just had to lift the lancing machine up by a few feet to reach those new ports,” says Bingfeng.

A man is holding up a cardboard model. He is sitting on a black chair, in an office setting.
Bingfeng Gu, holds up the cardboard model of his game changing approach to snout lancing.

It only took nine months from idea inception to achieving results.

“Without the angled snout lancing ports having been already installed, we wouldn’t have had the success we had today,” says Bingfeng. “Collaborating with process operations, research and development, mechanical engineers, civil engineers and maintenance personnel, we were able to put everything together fairly quickly and with a very small investment,” says Bingfeng. 

The new lancing system has been very successful. “Thanks to the new ports and improved lancing system, the issue of diminished capacity caused by cyclone fouling is behind us. We’re able to run for longer and with reduced steam consumption between planned full maintenance because we can clean out the coke build up in the cyclones. By being able to operate at a higher unit capacity feed, we’re able to convert more bitumen– which is huge for us,” says Keith MacDougall, Manager Operations.

Five men standing on a platform. They are wearing blue PPE and orange hard hats.
(From left to right: Keith MacDougall, Brent Pockett, Gavin Lee, Bingfeng Gu, Eric Williams, Romeo De Chavez), standing on the lancing platform on fluid coker 8-2, in preparation of the fluid coker snout lancing.

Keith adds, “From a safety perspective, the new lancing system is easier and more ergonomic and requires less hydraulic pressure for maintenance personnel to push the lance deep into the cyclone gas outlet tube. We also modified the lancing rig platform and had scaffolding built under it as an extra safety improvement.”

“The snout lancing project is an example of perseverance to finding a solution,” says Eric Williams, GM, Operations - Primary Upgrading, Oil Sands. “The return on investment of the new system is exceptional. With the focus on the fundamentals and cross-functional team collaboration to innovate a simple and elegant solution, there is now the potential to process on average an additional 1.1 million barrels per year of bitumen in the fluid cokers, for a negligible investment. It will contribute to our goal to reduce the price per barrel."