Having spent most of a long and distinguished academic career working with metals, Weixing Chen became fascinated by the potential of repurposing a heavy hydrocarbon from Alberta’s oil sands into a high-value product for a low-carbon economy. 

The product is carbon fibre – thin as human hair but four times stronger than steel – and research has shown producing it from oil sands bitumen generates lower greenhouse gas emissions than today’s sources.  

“This is a great opportunity for me to challenge myself moving forward to develop this technology that will benefit society,” says Chen, a chemical and material engineering professor at the University of Alberta.  

His team at Edmonton-based Thread Innovations is one of five receiving a total $15 million in funding in the final round of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, announced in December. 

Great potential for carbon fibre 

With its light weight and high strength, today carbon fibre is used in products like aircraft and spacecraft parts, racing car bodies, bicycles, hockey sticks and golf clubs. 

It has great potential, but its use is limited by cost. Carbon fibre averages $10 to $12 per pound, compared to less than $1 per pound for steel.   

Part of the Alberta competition is that the carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen must cost 50 per cent less than current carbon fibre products.  

This would unlock new markets for carbon fibre, says Byran Helfenbaum, associate vice-president of clean energy for Alberta Innovates, which is funding the challenge along with Emissions Reduction Alberta.  

“At the end of this phase, the intention is the technology is at a point where a company could make a funding decision for if not a commercial project, then at least a commercial demonstration project,” he says. 

“It’s really to get it out of the lab and start hitting the key specifications, identifying the existing and new markets, and pumping out prototypes that can be tested.  We have already generated our first two prototypes, a truck side mirror and a hockey stick, but we need to go bigger and faster and test a wide range of market opportunities.” 

Long-term need for carbon-based products 

The future is likely to be full of carbon fibre products, Helfenbaum says. 

“This ‘low-carbon future’ is a misnomer. When we say low-carbon future, what we mean is let’s keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon is still going to be around us in solid form, and probably in increasingly higher amounts,” he says.  

“We’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet by mid-century. They need energy, but they also need stuff. They need housing, infrastructure, and consumer goods. And most of that stuff is or can be made of pure carbon.” 

Lower emissions from oil sands carbon fibre 

Most carbon fibre today is generated from a chemical compound called polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which is derived from a component of natural gas. 

recent study by researchers at the University of Alberta found that life cycle emissions from carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen are 69 per cent lower than PAN-based product.  

It’s the high carbon content of oil sands bitumen that provides the benefit, Helfenbaum says.  

“The heaviest fraction of bitumen takes more energy to break down to be turned into fuels. But that same fraction can be used to produce carbon fibre with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the current PAN process,” he says. 

“If we are successful in reducing its cost, then it can be deployed into new markets that will further reduce carbon emissions, such as lightening passenger vehicles and improving the longevity of concrete infrastructure.” 

Adding value while reducing emissions 

The Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge is part of Alberta Innovates’ broader Bitumen Beyond Combustion research program. The work considers opportunities to use bitumen to create value-added products other than fuels like gasoline and diesel.   

“From an economic perspective, the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program could triple the value of a barrel of bitumen,” Helfenbaum says.  

“Carbon fibre is among the most valuable of those products, but it’s not the only one. This is potentially in the tens of billions of dollars a year of gross revenue opportunity, so this is transformational.” 

It also presents environmental benefits.  

“Eighty per cent of the emissions associated with petroleum happen at combustion of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel so by diverting into these products, that becomes carbon that is sequestered forever and doesn’t get into the atmosphere,” he says.  

Pathway to commercial production 

Winners of the grand challenge will have a credible pathway to manufacturing 2,000 tonnes or more of carbon fibre per year. The challenge is scheduled to end in summer 2026.  

Thread Innovations is building a new facility to produce samples for potential buyers and demonstrate the ability to scale up production. This phase will also focus on improving characteristics of the carbon fibre produced by their technology to build commercial demand. 

“Our target is to complete the current project and then establish a commercialization plan in 2025,” says Chen.  

This content is from the Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.