By the editorial staff of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance
Alberta is poised to drive an energy evolution that can change the face of the Canadian economy and meaningfully contribute to achieving net-zero emission goals. Alberta is a globally significant centre of energy production and expertise, and a growing centre of clean tech expertise focused on transforming its key energy resources and managing them more sustainably.
We are challenged to reconcile the environmental imperative to reduce if not eliminate emissions, with the reality that oil and gas will still be in demand over the near term while the world transitions to new fuels and energy sources. However, net-zero emissions and a viable resource industry can be possible when one approaches the problem in a different way.
Alberta’s natural resources, bitumen included, can contribute to the Canadian economy during the energy transition and be part of a net-zero emissions solution over the long term. Alberta Innovates has developed a strategy to transform bitumen from oil sands, utilizing the carbon in a value chain of advanced materials and products instead of releasing it through combustion in transportation fuels.
Products and materials made from bitumen can make transportation more energy efficient, infrastructure less energy intensive and more durable, and renewable generation and energy storage more economic. In directing bitumen toward a higher value stream, emissions from processing can be sequestered through carbon capture and storage technologies. Bitumen is diverted away from fuel combustion emissions, displacing other high-GHG intensity products, and reducing downstream GHG emissions.
BBC represents a significant economic diversification opportunity to create new end uses and industries from valuable local feedstocks. It is for all these reasons that Alberta Innovates has invested significant time and energy into the BBC program and will continue to do so in the future.
BBC products can meet the global need for material goods manufactured in a sustainable manner and which are long lasting and add value to end users. These are products that the world needs today and for decades to come. BBC can increase the competitiveness and future markets for bitumen. Furthermore, these products maximize revenue derived from bitumen.
BBC pathways offer more economic and carbon reduction value from the heavier fraction of bitumen. Increasing the production of non-combustion products through BBC pathways will generate the light-fraction resources needed to explore and develop pathways to convert light fraction for non-combustion use.
Over the past five years Alberta Innovates has built a strong foundation for BBC. White papers provided early direction and guidance around the opportunity and subsequent projects demonstrated the conceptual feasibility of manufacturing non-combustions products from bitumen. This program has generated national and international attention.
Alberta Innovates is collaborating with partners from around the world on its Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge. Concurrently, Alberta Innovates is building capacity for BBC product development in Alberta at the University of Calgary, University of Alberta and multiple small-medium enterprises. We have support from the oil sands industry in the form of heavy fractions of bitumen for testing. Bitumen producers, manufacturers and end users have been engaged and are participating in the program.
Early stage of development
Despite the success thus far, much more work needs to be done to make the BBC vision a reality. Developing carbon fibre from bitumen is at the early stage of development; scaleup to manufacturing has yet to begin. It is very important to raise awareness in the United States about the superior quality of asphalt binder from Alberta and demonstrate this through field trials. Cheaper long-distance transport of asphalt binder at room temperature would unlock new markets. A number of high-value carbon products are in the early stage of development, more work is needed to realize their potential.
Most of this work remains too early and risky for private capital to invest, but over the next few years will reach a technology level suitable for private investment. Ensuring private investors are kept aware of BBC advancement is a pillar of the plan going forward. End-user engagement through the technology development process will be very important to ensure that BBC products will have commercial receptors once they are ready for manufacture. Governments will need to ensure policies are developed and implemented that enable BBC products to be manufactured in Alberta and Canada.
For more information on bitumen beyond combustion, check out these links:
• Bitumen beyond combustion – Phase 2 report
• Introduction to Bitumen Beyond Combustion (stantec.com)
• Canada’s billion-dollar opportunity
Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is an alliance of oil sands companies working with scientists, academics and innovators to accelerate the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. For more stories on oil sands innovation and collaboration, visit COSIA.ca.