Asphalt for building roads. Or carbon fibre in sports equipment, automobiles, airplanes and reinforced concrete. Or batteries for electricity storage. Or polymers for plastics.
These are just some of the possibilities that could result from a new project by Alberta Innovates called Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC for short). Over the next two years, the government research agency plans to offer up to $2 million for innovations that can help in the production, transport or marketing of high value, large-scale non-combustion products from bitumen. Already the project has generated interest from oil sands producers, the federal government as well as large multinational companies like BASF.
According to John Zhou, Alberta Innovates’ vice-president of clean energy, most of our bitumen—more than 90 per cent—goes to creating transportation fuels such as gasoline while just a fraction is being used to make non-combustion products, like asphalt, lubricants and petrochemicals. Finding new applications could be a way to diversify uses of the vast resource. It's estimated that there are the equivalent of 164 billion barrels of oil located in Canada's oil sands, giving Canada the third-largest reserves in the world.
“This is an opportunity that could have a significant impact to the industry’s long-term sustainability,” Zhou says.
By investigating the potential of Alberta oil sands components for generating products that are not fuels, the BBC project is aimed at diversifying the uses of the oil sands through products that can be made by or in partnership with Alberta’s oil sands industry.
The BBC project is informed by two background studies conducted by Alberta Innovates on the challenges of identifying, manufacturing and marketing non-combustion products from oil sands bitumen. Alberta Innovates consulted with representatives of some of Canada’s major oil sands producers and chemical companies, governmental agencies and research organizations on the studies. Some of the exciting products identified in included carbon fibres, graphene, polyurethanes, polycarbonates, controlled-release fertilizers, and high-quality asphalts.