Alberta Innovates is progressing with the next phase of its Beyond Bitumen Combustion project, seeking new, high-tech innovations and applications for oil sands bitumen
More than 90% of the roughly 2.5 million bpd of bitumen crude produced from Alberta’s oil sands goes towards combustible fuel products. Less than 10% goes towards other, equally useful applications including asphalt, carbon fibre and potentially graphene production. Although production is slated to increase to 3.5 million bpd in the next two decades, forecasts for global fuel consumption are becoming cloudier in light of increased electrification and more stringent emissions targets. As a result, the Canadian province is now looking to diversify its product mix.
A key plank in that strategy has been launched this year. The flagship Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC) project will see the government-backed Alberta Innovates programme offer up to C$2 million (US$1.5 million) over two years for innovations which can aid the production, transport or marketing of high-value, large-scale non-combustion products. With two phases of the project already complete, its latest Open Call 2018 invites proposals that will build on and extend the findings of the previous studies.
Although this call is not limited to these technologies, the programme has already examined solutions for carbon fibre and wood, plastic and concrete fibre composites, solid asphalts and asphaltenes, vanadium and quinone electrolytes for use in energy storage systems, and biodegradable polymers and plastics.
Scalability is important. According to the BBC scope of work statement, each product should be able to encourage at least 100,000 bpd of bitumen production, either from the expansion of existing markets or the creation of new markets. While near-term technologies are of greater interest, the group says these market opportunities may stretch out to 2030.
The asphalt market is of particular interest to the programme managers. Global production is forecast to rise from around 116 million tonnes in 2017 to 163 million tonnes in 2030, at a CAGR of over 4%, driven by construction and road growth in Asia. Bitumen is an ideal feedstock for asphalt production, and a preferable choice compared to lighter oils, but it must be transported in a molten form at high temperatures, which adds cost and complexity. As such, many of the innovations already identified have centred on ways of producing asphalt or transporting it more easily.
The BBC’s Phase 2 report makes particular note of technologies such as CanaPux – a Canadian National Railway and InnoTech-led innovation which allows bitumen to be wrapped in a layer of polymer, creating a buoyant solid puck that can be shipped more easily – and the University of Calgary’s development of “bitumen balls”, a pellet of bitumen encased in an asphaltene coating. (InnovOil explored the latter in more detail in our November 2017 issue).
Other solutions involve pre-mixing asphalt cement, as well as funded studies examining the potential for expanding existing heated rail infrastructure.
Speaking with Alberta Innovates in December 2017, BBC project lead and chemical engineer Axel Meisen noted: “Our challenge is to find ways of transporting our bitumen-derived asphalt to distant places, like Asia, in economically competitive and environmentally acceptable ways... These markets are not fixed and, therefore, we have to ask ourselves what will they be like in ten or 20 years’ time?”
“Economics is also key,” he said. “Many of the products we’re looking at are materials that would replace or enhance other materials, for example composites in vehicles. Oil sands derived products need to be functionally equivalent or superior to existing materials and they must be available at a competitive price.”
As is clear, the BBC project has already built up a good head of steam, given the promising nature of the technologies already identified. As demand for high-value applications such as carbon fibre and flow batteries increases, oil sands producers appear ready and willing to upskill and innovate to meet them.
As Meisen noted, “Diversification will help us become prepared. Finding new or expanded markets for non-combustion products for bitumen is an inherently robust strategy because it works well whether the demand for combustibles goes up or down.”
Applications for the expressions of interest (EoIs) in the Open Call 2018 close on June 8, with final results expected at the end of September 2018.