Alberta Innovates hopes a new bitumen research program could help change the national conversation on pipelines and turn an abundant waste product into an economic boon.
The provincially funded corporation has just invested $2 million in seven projects to explore alternative, non-combustion uses for bitumen.
It’s called the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program. The field of research is comparatively new, so projects that secured cash were research labs and universities.
That’s exactly what Bryan Helfenbaum, Alberta Innovates’ director of advanced hydrocarbons, expected, and he’s convinced the selected projects present some promising leads.
“The approved projects don’t quite cover every single gap we’ve identified, but they will meaningfully contribute to the overall body of knowledge,” Helfenbaum said.
And if projects work on a small scale, they can be expanded and moved towards full-blown commercial opportunities.
It’s no quick fix — “This is a long road,” Helfenbaum said — but it’s a good start with promising returns.
“This is one of those programs that is able to check the box on economic diversification, emission reduction, employment opportunities, environmental impacts, so it’s a pretty exciting and apolitical opportunity.”
Getting value from waste
Helfenbaum is particularly excited about the opportunities around bitumen-based carbon fibre.
Researchers have already turned bitumen into carbon fibre, he said, but it has been mostly lab-based work.
“We’ve got a lot of room to play on this because the feedstock is so cheap … so we see a significant pathway there that we can develop the manufacturing process. The end game here is to ultimately be able to create commercial carbon fibre,” he said.
The program ties in with the government’s $1-billion upgrade program.
The vision, Helfenbaum said, is to get raw bitumen out of the ground, partially upgrade it and send it down a pipeline to a refinery without the need for diluent (which in turn frees up pipeline space and gets a higher market value for the product). The heavier ends then get converted to asphalts, carbon fibres and other advanced carbon materials.
The end result? “You’re getting value out of what would otherwise be a waste material,” Helfenbaum said.
Around 80 per cent of bitumen emissions come from when it’s burnt for fuel. That means converting it into products would be an environmental positive, too.
“(If) we were already able to convert bitumen into these kinds of products, would the national discussion on pipelines sound any different? Would people still be opposed to the idea of moving bitumen through a pipeline if that bitumen were on its way to Ontario to build better cars and lighter, more fuel-efficient cars?” Helfenbaum said.
“I don’t think you necessarily convert every heart and mind, but I think the lens through which people look at it would change and, for some people, it would make a real difference in their support of this resource development.”
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