Researchers make pellets from bitumen and heavy oil
October 26, 2017
New supply method could allow easier transport by rail without the need for heated wagons
A University of Calgary research team has come up with a new way to transport bitumen and conventional heavy oil by converting the resources into self-sealing pellets.
University of Calgary petroleum and chemical engineering professor Ian Gates, who heads the research team, said the pellets can be transported by truck and rail, making it easier to send oil to various markets. In other words, shipping will not be limited to pipeline access points.
“With this, we can put it in a standard rail car,” Gates told CBC in a September interview. “It can go to any port where a rail car goes, which is an immense number of them, to get product out from North America.” He said the pellets, which are given rough, albeit coated, surfaces to prevent them from sticking together, could be shipped via thousands of rail cars built for coal that are now sitting idle.
“I don’t think it will replace pipelines. This just offers one more mode of transport. But, certainly, you could see it displacing some of the heated railcars,” he told press.
Gates and his research team have developed the technology so that it can make pellets of various sizes at the wellhead. According to Gates, who has forecast the end of steam use in oil sands drilling projects, the process uses about the same amount of energy as is necessary to add diluents to bitumen for pipeline transport.
“Think Advil,” Gates told CBC, referring to aspirin pills. “You have the chemical material...we’re then exposing that material, on the outside, to a set of heat, pressure conditions that then yield an asphaltine-rich coating. So really [it is] just a coating that bounds the inner material.”
According to Gates, the technology eliminates the need for polymers or other additives, which have been tried as coatings for bitumen – nor does it need complex additional equipment such as microwaves.
Air bubbles can be injected into the pellets to keep them buoyant and avoid hazardous oil spills. “They’re nice and hardy,” Gates told CBC. “If you put them in water, they’ll sit like that for a very long time. It’s a safe product for transport.”
The research team and Innovate Calgary, the school’s technology and business incubation centre, are working to bring the pellets to a pilot project and eventual commercial production.
“We were able [to] connect with potential industry partners and customers who might help advance the technology to a field trial, and ultimately, a full-scale solution,” Innovate Calgary’s vice president of energy, Stace Wills, told CBC.
Plans call for the fully automated technology to be producing barrels of the tiny balls in a pilot project by November. The project’s scale is slated to increase gradually over one year to several hundred barrels per day of production.
After shipment, the pellets can be mixed with diluent and upgraded in conventional fashion, or can remain as pellets and be used as feedstock for road paving. “In that case, all you do is sell the solid to those markets,” Gates told CBC.
Ironically, Gates and his team came upon their potentially ground-breaking discovery by accident. “We were trying to upgrade bitumen and learned how to degrade it instead,” Gates told University of Calgary publication UToday. As a result, the technology that produces the little balls was almost mothballed.
“We put it on the shelf for quite a while, because who would want bitumen pellets?” Gates told UToday. “It turns out there’s a huge market for this stuff.”