CN hopes CanaPux will deliver new goals for Canadian heavy oil production
In July 2013 a Canadian freight train consisting of 74 cars of Bakken crude (some 4,000 tonnes) was left unattended. Its air brakes failed (the background to that is too long to rehearse here) and it rolled seven miles down a slight gradient to crash into the town of Lac-Megantic, where the subsequent explosion and fires killed 47 people. The fire was so intense that its heat was felt at a distance of 3 km.
With rail freight playing a very large role in the transport of crude around Continental North America the risk of a repetition of the Lac-Megantic disaster is not small. Rail freight spills one barrel for every million shipped – a low rate, but three times that of pipeline shipping. And of course when those spills arrive in a rush the risk of a large disaster is real.
CN, the public company that now owns most of Canada’s rail system, has now launched CanaPux – a process that aims to render rail transportation of heavy crude oil completely safe.
The CanaPux process adds a plastic polymer to heavy oil to form an elastic solid that can be formed into puck-shaped bricks (which is probably where “pux” came from). The bricks produced – about the size of a large bar of soap – are then coated in more of the same polymer and can be handled like dry cargo. They are stable up to 145°C, and can be transported in open-top freight cars, and loaded on to bulk freighters by conveyor. CanaPux can use the same freight infrastructure as coal.
CanaPux requires a polymerisation plant at the point of despatch, and on arrival a refiner needs to depolymerise the blocks with low-intensity heat. The polymer is extracted either for re-use or resale. While encapsulated physical damage to the “puck” releases no liquids to the environment – the whole puck is made of solid polymer (though we would think there is likely to be some element of polymerised dust emissions if pucks are handled in bulk conveyors).
While in its polymerised form CanaPux-crude is reasonably robust, but CN has not released details of its actual pressure resistance. It appears likely that CanaPux will survive bulk loading in a small coastwise freighter, but a question remains over its prospects in larger bulkers.
CN believes that CanaPux can deliver a triple win for Canadian heavy oil production. First, total takeaway capacity should rise. Second, with the handling and shipping flexibility provided Canadian heavy crude could find new markets (CN is talking about exports to the Asian market). And third, of course, risks (both large and small) are reduced. Another win might be removing the need to dilute bitumen with lighter oils for conventional transportation.
CN is seeking financial partners to build a US$50 million, 10,000 bpd pilot plant in Alberta, and has signed an MOU with an unnamed Asian buyer – not quite a deal but an indication of where CanaPux could take Canadian heavy crude in future.