Safety Move: Converting Crude Into Pellets

Monday, September 11, 2017 @ 11:09 AM gHale

New technology can transform heavy crude oil into multi-sized pellets.

Pellets made of bitumen make it easier to transport oil in coal rail cars or transport trucks with less risk of environmentally harmful spills, and reducing the need for new pipelines.

New technology can transform heavy crude oil into pill-sized pellets could solve the oil sands industry’s transportation headaches, said University of Calgary professor Ian Gates.

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The newly patented technique creates self-sealing balls of bitumen of various sizes that can end up moved in coal rail cars or in trucks with less risk of environmentally harmful spills, thus reducing the need for new pipelines, he said.

As it is with many inventions, the technology ended up discovered accidentally by Gates and research engineer Jackie Wang at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering.

“We were trying to upgrade and we learned how to degrade,” Gates said.

“For these products, we’ve taken it to degrading the outer surface of pellets … so we have an intact pellet that’s kind of like a black Advil pill.”

Gates said a pilot project able to generate one barrel per day of the pellets will start in November, to be followed by a scaled-up commercial demonstration project able to produce about 600 barrels per day.

He said it could cost about $1 million to build a machine that could deliver 100 barrels per day of pellets but added the cost per barrel will fall dramatically with larger scale projects.

In a related move, the Canadian National Railway unveiled a similar technology earlier this year, saying it had filed a patent application for CanaPux, a process that turns bitumen into a semi-solid for transportation by mixing and coating it with polymer.

Gates said, however, his system is better because it doesn’t require chemical additives or complex equipment. Instead, it uses heat to remove some of the lighter petrochemical molecules from the bitumen and a roller system to make the pellets.

He said there’s a potentially “massive” market for the pellets which can end up used as is to make asphalt or it could convert back to bitumen by reinjecting the lighter oil.

Opponents of new oil sands pipelines such as the Trans Mountain expansion through B.C. have argued that bitumen will be hard to clean up if it leaks into water because it will sink.

Gates said it is possible to inject an air bubble into his pellets to make them float, allowing recovery with a fishing net.

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