Asphalt for building new roads in developing countries. Carbon fibre in airplanes or golf clubs. There are many possible uses of bitumen that can help diversify Alberta's oils sands sector. The extraction, transportation, upgrading and conversion of bitumen is one of Alberta's primary economic drivers. The province is blessed with enormous reserves that rival the resources of the world's top energy-producing countries: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, Russia and the United States. Currently, bitumen from Alberta's oil sands is converted into combustion products like gasoline, diesel, heating oil and other types of fuels.

As with any wise strategy, diversification beyond one use is key. Enter Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC), an Alberta Innovates' sponsored initiative, with support from industry partners, looking at how Alberta's oil sands can be used to serve non-combustion markets. Because it is so early stage, Alberta Innovates is taking a leadership role to ensure that Alberta will be prepared to address the global market for non-combustible products. AI is known for building relationships and partnerships and this is another example of how we've managed to bring together research organizations, oil sands companies and petrochemicals companies to accomplish this techno-economic evaluation.

We sat down with project lead, chemical engineer and advisor Axel Meisen, to get a better sense of this work.

What is the BBC project?

We're looking at what can be done with all constituents of oil sands, including sand, clay, and water; not just bitumen. Bitumen, however, is where most of the focus must lie because the province currently produces about 2.5 million barrels of it per day, with that number slated to increase to over 3.5 million barrels per day within 10 to 15 years. The scope of the BBC project includes an assessment of the North American and global markets for promising non-combustion products from oil sands that are consistent with these production targets. It also addresses important issues related to competitiveness, social acceptance, environmental matters (including greenhouse gas emissions), recyclability and ultimate disposition.

Why is this project being undertaken?

At present, over 90 per cent of oil, including bitumen, goes to making combustion products. Ten per cent, or less, goes to making non-combustibles. The problem is that we don't know for sure what the market outlook for combustion products will be in light of potential major changes driven by such factors as electrification of transportation, climate change concerns and global regulations regarding the use of petroleum based fuels. We need to be prepared should there be a lessening of growth or even a decline in petroleum-based fuel markets. Diversification will help us become prepared. Finding new or expanded markets for non-combustion products for bitumen is an inherently robust strategy because it works well whether the demand for combustibles goes up or down.

What does that involve?

We're working under the direction that the non-combustion products should be produced in Alberta or other parts of Canada for North American and global markets. If there are factors that do not favour Alberta or Canadian locations for production, we will identify them. The report will rank the most promising non-combustion products that can be made from oil sands in the near-, medium-, and long-term. We view the year 2030 as the long-term. If we can find products that can serve large and growing markets, like China, for example, it would be a big win for Alberta in terms of job creation, economic diversification and partnership building.

Why is asphalt considered one of the most promising near-term, non-combustible products?

The global asphalt market is very large and it's growing. The primary use of asphalt in North America is for building new and re-surfacing existing roads. If one looks at the developing world, including China and India, there will be substantial demand to build additional roads. Bitumen is a very good raw material for making asphalt. It's superior to alternatives, like light oil, because it has relatively high concentrations of large molecules called asphaltenes that give asphalt highly desirable properties.

What are examples of other non-combustion products?

A good example of a non-combustion product that can be made from bitumen are carbon fibres. Today's markets are quite small, being largely confined to the aerospace and high-performance sectors (including sporting equipment like snow-boards, tennis rackets and golf clubs). The longer-term market outlook for fibres is very promising, since they may find wide entry into the automotive and construction sectors.

Graphene, another form of carbon, has interesting potential. Like carbon fibres, graphene is extremely light and strong. Unlike carbon fibres, it's electrically conductive-more so, in fact, than copper. That means, if we could make graphene in large quantities and economically from bitumen, we'd have a product that could find wide uses in electric power generation and transmission, as well as in electrified transportation. These are potentially very significant markets in terms of size and value.

Other examples of non-combustion products are high-performance polymers and innovative uses of metals (like vanadium) for electricity storage devices. There are potentially growing markets for all these products. It just depends on how these markets develop and how we could serve them.

What are some early challenges you've identified?

Our challenge is to find ways of transporting our bitumen-derived asphalt to distant places, like Asia, in economically competitive and environmentally acceptable ways. We will provide high-level assessments of technical, economic, safety and environmental issues (including Green House Gas emissions) associated with bringing non-combustible products, like asphalt, to world markets. These markets are not fixed and, therefore, we have to ask ourselves what will they be like in ten or 20 years' time?

What will the BBC project produce?

We have completed an initial overview report on non-combustion products derived from oil sands. We are now in the process of deepening our understanding, especially with respect to production technologies, product characteristics and markets. We are also identifying gaps in knowledge, including critical factors and barriers related to producing, manufacturing, and getting products to market. Issues related to environmental protection, social acceptance, full life cycle, and competitiveness are also integral to our work.

What are some of the challenges that you would highlight?

There are really three very important challenges. Scale is important. We're looking for non-combustion products that can be produced on a scale that require a significant amount of oil sands. We are focused on products and markets that are associated with 100, 000 barrels of bitumen per day. It's not so difficult to identify uses that are small, highly specialized and high-value. While we will list them, our focus is on large volume uses that would make a difference to the entire oil sands sector.

Economics is also key. Many of the products we're looking at are materials that would replace or enhance other materials, for example composites in vehicles. Oil sands derived products need to be functionally equivalent or superior to existing materials and they must be available at a competitive price.

Also, Alberta is typically quite far away from the end markets and users. Everything we've discussed so far are products that are largely going to be used by somebody else far away from the province. Think asphalts in Asia. While we can expect some growth in the Alberta and North American markets, the big growth potential is overseas. We always need to consider transportation, logistics, safety (especially marine protection), and costs.

When do you anticipate the project to be completed?

We are currently in the second phase of the project and expect to finish it prior to the end of the first quarter of 2018. In the first phase, we took a very high-level view of the products I previously mentioned. Stantec has been contracted to lead the second phase. Representatives from industry and government are cooperating with Stantec, which will prepare its report to Alberta Innovates.

Meet the lead

Axel Meisen, lead consultant for the BBC project
Axel Meisen, lead consultant for the BBC project

Axel Meisen has Bachelor, Master's and Doctoral degrees in Chemical Engineering. He held the inaugural Chair in Foresight at the former Alberta Research Council and Alberta Innovates-Technology Futures. Meisen works with boards and senior management of private- and public-sector organizations on the development and implementation of long-term strategies that anticipate emerging opportunities and needs in Canada and abroad.