While they may not fully replace pipelines, a University of Calgary professor’s self-sealing and spill-resistant balls of bitumen may solve many of the top problems with ground and water transport of heavy crude oil.
Ian Gates, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, invented the bitumen balls by accident. He was trying to find a process to upgrade bitumen, hoping to convert it from having a consistency similar to peanut butter to one more like olive oil. Instead, he ended up degrading it, which resulted in the formation of a plastic-like skin.
The discovery sat idle for a while before Gates found a market for semi-solid pellets, which can be used for safe transport, and even as a direct feedstock for producing asphalt.
The bitumen balls improve transport in several ways. Firstly, the skin protects and stores a liquid core of bitumen, which means that it no longer needs to be transported in a tanker car. Unprocessed bitumen needs to be heated just to get it into and out of a tank, which adds to the cost of transport. Instead, the balls could easily be loaded into the many existing rail cars designed to carry coal, which is now a dying industry.
Compared to pipelines, which have the advantage of carrying very high volumes of bitumen around the clock, rail transport has the advantage of having a more diverse and wide-reaching network, capable of supplying bitumen to more locations, including ports for distribution and use on ships.
Perhaps more importantly, the balls would protect against the risks of liquid oil spills. Heavier than water, spilled liquid bitumen seeps into the ground and sinks under water. Bitumen balls can be injected with air so they can float, and their tough skin allows them to sit intact for long enough to easily collect them.
The self-sealing capsules can be quickly and reproducibly made right at the wellhead. The bitumen is heated and sent through a roller system to convert it into pellets. During the process, lighter petrochemical molecules are removed, and a light oil is made as a byproduct. It’s a high quality oil that can be used on its own, or saved and crushed together with the bitumen balls to go back to raw bitumen as a feedstock for refineries.
The automated process can be used to make bitumen balls ranging from the size of pills to the size of golf balls without any other additives. This makes them better than other polymer-based skins that require extra chemicals.
The energy needed to make bitumen balls is about the same as what’s needed to heat the bitumen for traditional transport. It’s simple and cost effective.
Gates is running a pilot scale study now, hoping to produce barrels of bitumen balls each day. With the help of industry partners, Gates expects to be scaling up to hundreds of barrels of bitumen balls per day within a year.
The ultimate goal for the future of energy is to move away from fossil fuels like bitumen. But in the short term, spill-resistant bitumen balls may ease pressure to build new pipeline infrastructure for transport.