The CBC has an article on how Balls of bitumen, a Calgary breakthrough, could bypass pipeline problem. Since BC’s new NDP government has put the breaks on the transmountain pipeline expansion, this may be very good news for Alberta and the oil sands, though possibly not so good for the environment. Here’s a summary of the story:
Calgary engineer Ian Gates found a way to envelope oil in self-sealing pellets, with a liquid core and super-viscous skin. 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.
“We’ve taken heavy oil, or bitumen, either one, and discovered a process to convert them rapidly and reproducibly into pellets,” said Gates. “With this [process], we can put [bitumen] in a standard rail car. It can go to any port where a rail car goes, which is an immense number of them, to get product out from North America. The pellets could be put in the thousands of rail cars built for coal that are now sitting idle.”
Gates and his team of researchers have developed the technology to the point where they can make pellets of various sizes right at the wellhead, using about the same amount of energy as it takes to liquefy bitumen for shipping via pipelines. The pellets are tough and can be safely transported by rail or truck without worrying about spills. Because of a gas bubble injected inside each pellet, they are also buoyant, Gates says.
“They’re nice and hardy. If you put them in water, they’ll sit like that for a very long time; it’s a safe product for transport,” Gates said. “By November, the fully automated technology will be producing barrels of the tiny balls. Over the next year we’ll then scale that up to a several-hundred-barrel per day unit.”
Once the pellets are transported, they can be reconstituted back to bitumen by re-mixing them with light oil, which is produced as a side product of the original process and then upgraded [to replace crude oil] in the regular way. You have to transport the light oil with the solids if you want to reconstitute the heavy oil. The pellets can also be used as they are for road paving, without the need to upgrade the product any further.