Alberta’s oil sands could contain the province’s greatest untapped resource. That might be surprising, given that the province currently produces 2.8 million barrels of crude bitumen daily. However, while the province’s oil industry is a major driver of the provincial economy, the crude oil the province produces has been trading for less than $40 per barrel. It can be challenging to find markets for the high-carbon oil, which is not only expensive to produce, but challenging to transport and refine.
But the very attributes that make Alberta’s oil difficult to market could help transform it into an enormously profitable – and environmentally friendly – new resource. Due to bitumen’s large carbon molecules it either needs to be diluted or “partially upgraded” into synthetic crude oil that is light and viscous enough for transportation via pipeline. One of those large carbon molecules, asphaltene, could be the key to tapping into a rapidly growing global market for advanced materials.
Carbon fibre is a strong, lightweight material consisting of filaments of carbon atoms, used in everything from automobiles and bikes to protective clothing, microelectrodes, and building materials. Asphaltene, which is stripped from bitumen in the partial upgrading process, is a promising feedstock for the creation of carbon fibre. Currently worth around $7 per kilogram, carbon fibre is significantly more valuable than the crude oil from which it can be derived. It’s also more sustainable environmentally; 80% of the greenhouse gasses associated with bitumen occur at combustion, which are negated when it is instead used to create value added products.
That’s why Alberta Innovates is launching the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a $15-million international competition to accelerate the development of carbon fibre from bitumen in Alberta. Part of the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program, which aims to advance the development of non-combustion products and production technologies derived from bitumen, the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge is directed toward funding technologies and projects that convert bitumen or asphaltenes into carbon fibre.
John Zhou, Alberta Innovates’ Vice President of Clean Resources, sees enormous promise in both programs. “Bitumen Beyond Combustion and the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge aim to produce large-volume, high-value, non-combustion products from bitumen. It has the potential to shift the oil sands industry toward value creation and significantly enhance sustainability in a low-carbon emission economy,” he says.
Applications are expected from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia. The challenge will consist of three phases which will wrap up at the end of 2024. Three grand prizes of $3 million will be awarded to the winners who will be required to produce more than 10 kg of carbon fibre per day, with a line of sight to scale production to more than 250 tonnes per day.
Eventually, this production process could result in more than 100,000 barrels of Alberta bitumen being used daily to produce carbon fibre. In 2017, Alberta’s oil sands produced roughly $54 billion in revenues. Carbon fibre production could potentially double or triple that revenue in the next 15 years years. That’s a resource worth developing.