Bitumen Beyond Combustion: A whole new way of tapping into the oil sands

There is an exciting conversation developing, both within the oil sands industry and far beyond, about the largely untapped potential for harnessing bitumen to create a wide range of non-combustion products. Until now most oil sands bitumen has been utilized as a combustion product such as gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel, heating oil etc., but many are beginning to look beyond this traditional approach and towards new opportunities. 

Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC) is an exciting initiative that has been led by Alberta Innovates since 2017 and has already spawned two detailed reports into the unique opportunities for transforming bitumen and its constituents into globally marketable, value-added products. The initial report, generated by Axel Meisen, PhD, Senior Advisor to Alberta Innovates and co-lead of the BBC program, provided the foundation and seminal concepts for the BBC initiatives.

Alberta Innovates subsequently commissioned Stantec Consulting to expand, in collaboration with representatives of industry and government organizations, the concept and provide more details, including additional business perspectives.  A COSIA-led webinar series has helped spread the news about BBC opportunities to a broad audience of industry and government representatives, technology developers, consultants, academics and others around the world. The reports supported an open competition by Alberta Innovates, resulting in the launch of seven BBC research projects early in 2019.

The webinar series — one of the most popular ever hosted by COSIA — began last fall and concluded in late February. The series included an overview of the reports’ findings, followed by separate sessions that closely examined both opportunities and challenges associated with converting bitumen into three key groups of non-combustion products — carbon fibers and combination products, asphalts, and plastics or polymers. 

“The whole area of BBC is generating a lot of interest and media attention from outlets such as The Economist and CBC,” says Paolo Bomben, Senior Manager, Clean Technology Development, and co-lead of the BBC program for Alberta Innovates. “The exciting part is not just the huge commercial potential, but the very significant environmental upside of using bitumen from the oil sands to create non-combustion products that people will use and need in their daily lives. Going forward, I think BBC has the potential to change the whole tone of the conversation regarding Canada’s oil sands.”

Both the BBC reports and the webinar series assess potential opportunities through 2030. The most immediate one is the massive and ever-growing global demand for asphalt.

Asphalt derived from the oil sands is considered by some experts to be of superior quality compared to many other currently available asphalts. Alberta Innovates is funding two research projects that will benchmark the performance of oil sands derived asphalt to further validate this belief. However, to this point, Alberta’s production of asphalt has not found major markets outside Western Canada due to shipping limitations. Current practices involve loading and unloading liquid asphalt into trucks and rail cars heated to 150 degrees Celsius to keep it fluid. The energy-intensive and complex infrastructure required to ship the hot, molten asphalt overseas from land-locked Alberta is prohibitively expensive.

But that could soon change if new technologies are developed to turn bitumen-derived asphalt (on a large scale) into a solid form, such as pellets that could be transported in unheated rail cars and ocean-going bulk carriers.

“Some related technologies are already underway,” says Nathan Ashcroft, Strategic Business Development, Stantec. “But, to date, no one has had access to that ocean of asphalt we have in the oil sands. When you put the two together, there’s a very robust commercial opportunity. After all, trillions of dollars of asphalt roads will continue to be built worldwide in the coming years.”

Similarly, carbon fiber (CF) has been touted as a breakthrough material of the 21st Century that could complement or integrate with such major global commodities as steel, cement and wood. The high-asphaltene content that makes oil sands bitumen unique is a potentially rich feedstock for CF which, in turn, could be used in a wide range of everyday products and building materials.

As the BBC reports and webinar series have highlighted, a (not unreasonable) 1% penetration by CF into the steel industry by 2030 would require 500,000 barrels per day of asphaltenes — roughly all the asphaltenes found in current oil sands production.

Using asphaltenes as CF feedstock represents a significant potential “win-win” as it has strong synergies with partial upgrading technologies currently being advanced in the province, which give a higher value for products and increase existing pipeline capacity by reducing or eliminating diluent requirements.

“The heaviest fraction of bitumen is asphaltenes and it has historically been a difficult fraction,” says Nathan. “This is a chance to use this heavy, bottom of the barrel to start building stuff in our living world.”

Two longer-term opportunities for bitumen-derived non-combustion products are polymers and vanadium flow batteries. The global polymer market will be approaching a trillion dollars a year by 2030. Only a small fraction of bitumen is currently used for creating polymer plastics and barriers to expanding that market are considerable. But the BBC initiative has identified some potential opportunities worth exploring such as compostable and biodegradable plastics.

Similarly, growth in the global energy storage market to support renewable energy sources such as solar and wind is encouraging the development of vanadium flow batteries. Vanadium is contained within oil sands bitumen in significant quantities.

Beyond their obvious commercial potential, bitumen-derived non-combustion products are also appealing to many as an alternative way of tapping into Canada’s vast oil sands resource with a minimal amount of impact on GHG emissions.

“The response I’ve seen to the BBC webinar series has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Paolo. “And that includes some people who have been critical of aspects of conventional oil sands production. The fact that most of these products would utilize bitumen while keeping the carbon sequestered is intriguing and exciting to them.”

Nathan found a similar reaction. “This whole concept has really grabbed people’s attention. They are fascinated, and they want to learn more. This isn’t the end of the journey; it’s just the beginning.”