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Beyond combustion: deriving greater value from bitumen

Asphaltene, a carbon-rich bitumen byproduct, could be used to make carbon fibre.

Bitumen extracted from Canada’s oil sands is usually either refined in Canada to produce products such as diesel, gasoline and aviation fuel, or it’s diluted (to reduce viscosity, allowing bitumen to flow through pipelines) and sold to other markets and refiners. But carbon-rich bitumen could be the source of several value-added products that don’t involve combustion by the end user, which is what happens when refined products are as for transportation fuels.

One such opportunity might not only lower emissions by avoiding combustion, but also create a new industry subsector to supply the automotive and construction industries with a highly coveted material: carbon fibre.

This innovation could take advantage of a troublesome component of bitumen – asphaltene. This compound, which makes bitumen thick and heavy, typically comprises 15 to 18 per cent of a barrel of bitumen and is normally a byproduct of the extraction process, left behind when lighter fractions are drawn off to make refined fuels. Currently asphaltene can be used for road paving, making shingles or as waterproofing for building foundations. But using asphaltene to create carbon fibre has potential to significantly boost the value of every barrel of bitumen.

Alberta Innovates issues a challenge

Carbon fibre is lightweight but very strong and has many potential applications in different industries including the manufacture of automotive parts. Because carbon fibre has half the weight and twice the strength of steel, it can dramatically increase fuel efficiency in automobiles, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

Alberta Innovates believes this opportunity is achievable. Traditionally, carbon fibre is manufactured using natural gas liquids as a feedstock, but a recent report commissioned by Alberta Innovates indicates there could be a significant potential to produce carbon fibre using feedstock from Canada’s oil sands. In fact, it could become a billion-dollar industry.

In January 2020, Alberta Innovates launched a $15 million incentive to commercialize technologies to create carbon fibre from asphaltene. This is the first part of the Alberta Innovates Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a three-phased contest that runs until 2024. Over that time, three grand prizes of $3 million will be awarded. Winners must produce at least 10 kilograms of carbon fibre per day with scalability to more than 250 tonnes per day, while keeping process cost down. Eventually the province would like to see 100,000 barrels of bitumen per day used for carbon fibre production.