New tar sands technology could be a game-changer for Alberta

Posted Feb 22, 2018 by Karen Graham
Ian Gates, an engineer at the University of Calgary thinks an invention he stumbled upon in the laboratory could transform the way Alberta gets its heavy oil to market.
Bitumen balls can range from golfball- to pill-size.
Bitumen balls can range from golfball- to pill-size.
University of Calgary = Innovate Calgary
Gates is a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering. Last year, while he and his team were researching ways to upgrade bitumen, they accidentally found a way to degrade it, making it even more viscous, reported CBC Canada in September 2017.
Basically, Gates and his team found a way to turn bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil into "self-sealing pellets" that have a liquid core and super-viscous skin. This reduces the chance of a damaging spill during transport. The pellets can be designed to be buoyant and safe if they are spilled into the environment by incorporating agents within the pellets, like gas bubbles, catalysts, and solvents.
In a news release, the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering said: "These tough little balls of bitumen could be a pipeline-free way of getting Alberta oil to markets cheaply, sustainably and with less risk of environmental harm."
Their outer coating is unreactive, making them much less likely to cause environmental damage than a liquid heavy oil or bitumen spill. Once shipped, the pellets can be rendered back to a liquid state—either liquid bitumen or heavy oil—by using a light oil of 40 °API that is produced as a side product during the pellet’s creation process.
Ian Gates and his team are working with heavy oil and bitumen.
Ian Gates and his team are working with heavy oil and bitumen.
Riley Brandt, - University of Calgary
In an interview with a Canadian radio station, Gates explained what came about in the laboratory. “Initially, we wanted to go the other direction,” he said. “When you think of bitumen, you think of peanut butter, a quite viscous material. We’re always thinking about how we can get it down in terms of viscosity. We wanted to get it to the level of olive oil, but what we found was that we can turn it into something near plastic."
Gates concedes the pellets won't do away with pipelines, but he points out there are thousands of rail cars built to haul coal, just sitting on the sidelines that could be used.
File photo: Aerial view of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility with the Suncor extraction fac...
File photo: Aerial view of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility with the Suncor extraction facility in the background, in Alberta Province, Canada on October 23, 2009.
Mark Ralston, AFP/File
But, in talking about rail cars used to transport liquid oil, he also said, “This could displace railcars because we could just pour [the pellets] in and pour them out. We could design them to float, we could design them to sink, and in that case, we would make them easily transportable.”
Innovate Calgary, the university’s technology and business incubation center helped support the research and develop the product into something commercially viable. Stace Wills, vice president of energy at Innovate Calgary, told CBC Canada that the center was able to connect Gates with potential industry customers capable of advancing the technology to a field trial.
Gates and his team have developed the technology to produce varying sizes of the pellets right at the wellhead, using almost the same amount of energy it would take to dilute the bitumen to liquefy it for shipping via pipelines. And while the pellets can be reconstituted using a light oil, they are perfect for road paving, said Gates. "In that case, all you do is sell the solid to those markets," he said