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Tar Sands/Oil Sands Look ‘Beyond Combustion’ for New Bitumen Products

Carbon fibre, pelletized asphalt, vanadium flow batteries, and polymers are on the list of possible products that Canadian tar sands/oil sands operators are considering as sources of demand for bitumen in a low-carbon future.

A report released earlier this year by Alberta Innovates suggests the tarry texture of bitumen that makes it such a problematic source of crude oil could be useful for some next-generation products—with carbon fibre (CF), touted as “the material of the 21st century”, heading the list.

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Earlier this fall, Corporate Knights and the Centre for Clean Capitalism published [2] guidelines for clean transition bonds could unlock up to C$1 trillion to help tar sands/oil sands companies pursue their continuing quest to reduce the carbon intensity of their operations—and, it turns out, to develop new product lines that don’t depend on turning bitumen into liquid fuel.

“CF markets globally are growing at a compound annual growth rate in excess of 10%, although from a small production base of less than 100,000 tons per annum. This is expected to grow to 250,000 tpa by 2030. Current high feedstock and manufacturing costs are limiting this growth,” stated the Bitumen Beyond Combustion Phase 2 report. The study, conducted by Stantec Consulting in partnership with several fossil companies and a division of Natural Resources Canada, suggested bitumen as a feedstock for carbon fibre production, “utilizing the high-asphaltene content that makes oilsands bitumen unique.”

The authors concluded that, “considering the growth potential and relative early stage development of the CF industry, there is tremendous opportunity to work towards oilsands-based feedstocks becoming a major component in the evolving CF industry in the future.”

Alberta Innovates “is now conducting further assessment of opportunities for bitumen-derived carbon fibres and CF combination products like steel, cement, and wood, as well as pelletized asphalt, vanadium flow batteries, and polymers,” industry newsletter JWN Energy reports.

The report points to asphalt, a product with 4.1% annual growth driven largely by road construction and maintenance, as an existing market for bitumen that could expand in the years ahead.

“Bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands could provide an excellent and consistent quality of asphalt with relatively easy processing,” the report concluded. “However, to this point, Alberta’s production of asphalt has not found major markets outside of western Canada due to molten-shipping limitations,” which require “energy-intensive infrastructure” to load and unload the product on rail cars at temperatures of 150°C.

“The use of alternative asphalt transportation technology, such as pellets or balls at ambient conditions, has the potential to significantly change the overall economics of asphalt shipment from Alberta to other parts of North America and beyond.”