Alberta investing in innovative high-value, non-combustion uses for oil sands bitumen
July 27, 2022
Creating a national program would accelerate commercialization of technologies to turn oil sands bitumen into high-value, non-combustion products and bolster Alberta’s investment in this area, say proponents.
So-called “beyond bitumen combustion” (BBC) technologies, which would divert some bitumen from being refined into and burned as fuels, could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate billions of dollars in revenue, according to a report by Alberta Innovates.
“Bitumen is nature’s gift to Alberta and we have to use it in an environmentally conscious manner,” says report co-author Dr. Paolo Bomben, PhD, senior manager of clean technology development and leader of the BBC program at Alberta Innovates.
“There are benefits to the entire country if we are able to successfully develop these technologies and produce downstream products at large scale,” he told Research Money. “A national program would be further recognition of the significant economic and environmental opportunity that exists for Alberta and Canada.”
One million barrels of bitumen per day used to make BBC products would generate revenue of $25 billion per year from those products, according to Alberta Innovates’ report. That compares with $11 billion annually (based on a $30-per-barrel price for bitumen) if the bitumen is used as feedstock for transportation fuels such as gasoline and diesel.
BBC products include asphalt binder (used to make paving asphalt), carbon fibre (used by the aerospace, automotive and other industries to reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency), and activated carbon (used for energy storage in batteries and supercapacitors).
Every million barrels of bitumen used for BBC products would keep approximately 65 million tonnes per year of global-warming emissions out of the atmosphere, compared with producing GHG-emitting fuels such as diesel and gasolines, says Alberta Innovates’ report.
It recommends that Ottawa create a national BBC program and for both the Alberta and federal governments to ramp up R&D investment in BBC products. That investment should start with $10 million per year in 2022 to $100 million annually after 2025, with total investment of $600 million between 2022 and 2030, says the report.
Asphalt binder could be the first widely used BBC product
Alberta Innovates has supported more than 25 ongoing BBC R&D projects, including several at Canadian universities and with support from industry partners.
Bomben said he anticipates the first non-combustion product made from bitumen to be widely used will be asphalt binder, the “glue” mixed with stones to make asphalt for paving city roads, highways and airport runways.
Alberta already produces asphalt binder, the largest producers being Imperial Oil’s Strathcona refinery just east Edmonton and Cenovus Energy’s refinery in Lloydminster.
The goal is to increase overall production and export of bitumen-derived asphalt binder utilizing emerging technologies, in production plants smaller than the large refineries, Bomben said. “These technologies are probably a couple of years away from demonstration and commercialization.”
The biggest challenge to exporting asphalt binder is transporting the product long distances at ambient temperature, he said. Currently, asphalt binder is transported mostly via tank trucks as a hot mix, which limits the distribution area and market.
“If we could move it, say in pellets, then we could use a rail infrastructure, airports, [marine] terminals on the coasts and we could access distant markets,” Bomben said.
Alberta Innovates has invested nearly $1.2 million in a $4.9-million project by Calgary-based Solideum Inc., to build a demonstration plant that would produce 1,000 barrels per day of heavy bitumen residue and a lighter distillate oil.
Using technology developed by Solideum’s chief operating officer, Dr. Ian Gates, PhD, a petroleum and chemical engineering professor at the University of Calgary, the heavy product can be converted to a pellet or flake solid. This provides an asphalt binder feedstock that can be easily transported by rail, truck or ship to both domestic and international asphalt markets.
The global demand for asphalt was estimated at approximately 143 million tonnes per year in 2020 and is expected to grow to about 174 million tonnes by 2025, according to a report commissioned by Alberta Innovates.
Facility being built to convert bitumen into activated carbon
In another beyond-bitumen-combustion project, Dr. Weixing Chen, PhD, is utilizing bitumen to produce “super-activated” carbon. Activated carbon, which has a very high surface area, is used in making electrodes in supercapacitors for energy storage in the renewable energy sector – among other applications.
Coconut shell powder, the feedstock currently used to make activated carbon, contains less than 50-per-cent carbon whereas bitumen has 80 per cent or higher carbon and also a greater density, Chen said.
“So for the same size of facility, you could process more carbon [into super-activated carbon],” Chen, chief technology officer at AdvEN Industries in Edmonton and a professor of chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, said in an interview.
Other advantages of using bitumen include significantly lower production cost, one-tenth of the energy consumed, and one-third the GHG emissions compared with current production methods, he added.
Supported by $7 million from private investors, along with $3.9 million from Sustainable Development Technologies Canada and $2.5 million from Alberta Innovates, AdvEN Industries is building a demonstration production plant in Nisku, just south of Edmonton.
Construction is scheduled to be complete by the end of this month with operations to start in September, Chen said. The plant will have the capacity to produce 300 tonnes per year of super-activated carbon.
The global market for activated carbon is projected to grow from about US$3.1 billion in 2021 to $4.5 billion in 2028, according to a report by Fortune Business Insights.
Producing carbon fibre from bitumen
Chen also is leading a project that uses asphaltene from bitumen to produce carbon fibre.
His $2-million project is jointly supported by private investors (contributing about $1.5 million), the federally funded Clean Resources Innovation Network, or CRIN ($455,000), and by Alberta Innovates ($45,000) through its three-phase Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge international competition.
Chen’s project is one of 12 bitumen-to-carbon fibre projects sharing a nearly $5.3-million investment by Alberta Innovates and $3 million from CRIN.
Chen and his team used asphaltene and refinery residue from Alberta oil sands upgraders to develop a technology that converts the feedstock into a chemical precursor for making carbon fibre. The team also has successfully pulled, or extracted, single threads of carbon fibres from the precursor.
The next step is a pilot project to show the process can be used to pull multiple carbon fibre threads for greater production, Chen said. “Without this being achieved, there’s no commercialization at all.”
The chemical precursor most commonly used now to make carbon fibre –polyacrylonitrile – is expensive with the production process being capital-intensive and complex, he noted. “So that really limits the application for carbon fibre.”
Chen and his team aim to produce bitumen-derived carbon fibre through a much simpler process, using less energy and with lower GHG emissions, and at a much lower cost.
Chen hopes to start his pilot project by the end of this year. If that project goes well, then a demonstration plant, achieving one to five tonnes of carbon fibre production per day, could follow within two to three years.
A potential customer for the carbon fibre is Haze Automotive, a Canadian auto-tech company.
Henry Lo, vice-president of engineering and chief technical officer at Haze Automotive, said the company is looking for a less expensive, more reliable source of automotive-grade carbon fibre to use in producing the firm’s carbon fibre-components for electric vehicles.
“Turning bitumen into carbon fibre is like turning waste into gold,” Lo said. “I think what Alberta is doing is a complete revolution.”
Lo said that Haze Automotive is looking at building a manufacturing plant in Alberta close to the source of the bitumen-derived carbon fibre, as soon as the process is scaled up to industrial-level production.
Turning oil sands waste into value-added product
Another non-combustion product that can be made from bitumen is titanium carbide, used in making cements to machine steel materials at high cutting speeds, and as an abrasion-resistant surface coating on tool parts such as drill bits and saw blades.
Dr. Jinwen Chen, PhD, and his team at CanmetENERGY in Devon, Alberta – part of Natural Resources Canada – have completed a two-year project, for which Alberta Innovates provided $160,000, that produced titanium carbide from bitumen coke.
Bitumen coke is a waste byproduct from upgrading bitumen into synthetic fuels. Alberta currently has more than 100 million tonnes of bitumen coke stockpiled at oil sands facilities near Fort McMurray.
“We are using this material that has very low economic value to produce this high-value material,” said Chen, director of the hydrocarbon conversion program at CanmetENERGY Devon. “From an economic point of view, we are saving a lot of costs.”
The current methods for making titanium carbide use a lot of energy and very high temperatures, which is expensive and emits a lot of GHG emissions, he noted.
Chen and his team have developed an electricity-powered milling process that chemically converts – at much lower temperatures – a mixture of bitumen coke and titanium into very fine, nano-scale-structured titanium carbide powder.
In their proof-of-concept project, they produced, in each operation of their milling machine, about 10 to 20 grams of titanium carbide for testing and analysis.
Chen said his team has purchased a larger milling machine and plans to scale up production, potentially to about 100 grams of titanium carbide, within two to three years. This material will be provided to industry partners for testing, to compare its performance with commercially available products.
The project fits within NRCan’s mandate to reduce GHG emissions in producing transportation fuel and other materials, he said.
“In the future,” Chen said, “we can use green electricity from solar, wind and hydro – even nuclear [power] – for this process to produce titanium carbide from a waste material from oil sands development.”