Alberta Innovates, in partnership with industry, government and other organizations, recently released the results of a study that investigates the best opportunities for “Bitumen Beyond Combustion” (BBC). Following a 2017 report that identified potential products that could be made from Alberta oil sands bitumen, this new study identifies the top potential uses to help Alberta diversify its economy outside of conventional fuels and chemical feedstocks.
To further accelerate this work, Alberta Innovates announced $2 million in funding to advance the most innovative research and development activities related to BBC.
The main objectives of the BBC Phase 2 study were to identify high potential non-combustion products that could be manufactured from oil sands, and assess the market potential for these products. This study provides insights into high-value products that can be made by, or in partnership with Alberta’s oil sands industry. The study focuses on four promising areas:
Carbon fibers and products incorporating carbon fibers. Production of CF is currently derived from both a synthetic feedstock Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) and a synthetic pitch. The study determined that bitumen can be used for producing PAN (from cracked gas propane) and potentially a pitch product, utilizing the high-asphaltene content that makes oil sands bitumen unique. Considering the growth potential and relative early stage of development of the CF industry, there is a tremendous opportunity to work towards oil sands-based feedstocks becoming a major component in the evolving CF industry in the future, the report said.
Asphalt and asphalt transportability. Bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands could provide an excellent and consistent quality of asphalt with relatively easy processing. However, to this point, Alberta’s production of asphalt has not found major markets outside of western Canada due to molten-shipping limitations. Current practices involve loading and unloading of asphalt into railcars at 150 °C. Energy-intensive infrastructure is currently needed to load and unload railcars. The use of alternative asphalt transportation technology, such as pellets or balls at ambient conditions, has the potential to significantly change the overall economics of asphalt shipment from Alberta to other parts of North America and beyond.
Vanadium flow batteries for electricity storage. Vanadium is contained within oil sands bitumen in significant quantities (200 ppmw). Oil sands facilities already have concentrated Vanadium in current streams (i.e., fly ash and coke). Technology development and assessment work should continue to determine how Vanadium can be removed economically from these streams. Processing recovered Vanadium into a usable electrolyte could also represent a significant business opportunity.
Polymers. Only a small fraction of downstream bitumen derivate is used for Polymer production. Although the market size is considerable, this is matched with barriers to entry, such as comparatively lower feedstock costs (gas) and global market players owning highly-propriety technology for polymer production.
Developing these products ensures Alberta continues to derive value from its oil sands products, while significantly reducing GHG emissions associated with fuel uses of bitumen. These products offset the potential reduction in the demand growth of bitumen from factors such as increased global oil supplies, environmental concerns about fossil fuels, energy conservation, and electric vehicles. Commercial-scale manufacture of high value-added products not intended for combustion is a sound strategy. It ensures the value of our bitumen resources.—Axel Meisen, former Chair of Foresight and now Advisor, Alberta Innovates
The $2 million in Open Call funding will support work on:
Producing and characterizing previously identified and/or new BBC products and demonstrating their production technologies, on laboratory or pilot-scale.
Validating technical, logistical, environmental, and market solutions to accelerate the commercialization of BBC products.
Assessing the business, marketing, energy, environmental, and greenhouse gas (GHG) issues related to BBC products and their production technologies.