Emerging technologies: Decarbonization

Leading-edge technology is integral to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, and Pathways Alliance companies have a long track record of world-class research and development (R&D) partnerships and investments to build on.

For more than a decade, much of that collaborative work to create a sustainable future has been coordinated by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), now the innovation arm of Pathways Alliance.

Our emerging technologies series looks at some of the work being done by COSIA and the six member companies who make up the Pathways Alliance.

This feature focuses on decarbonization:

Cleaning up carbon dioxide

Cleaning up carbon dioxide | Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – COSIA

What if there was a technology that removed carbon from the natural gas that commonly fuels industrial facilities, preventing carbon dioxide emissions (a greenhouse gas) from being produced? And what if this technology also delivered a valuable by-product from the captured carbon that could be used in other industries? That innovation would be a major step towards meeting Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The good news is that natural gas decarbonization (NGD) technologies are being tested in Canada and around the world. COSIA plays a leading role in this space because clean technologies like these have huge potential in the oil sands. Scott Elliott, team lead GHG projects at Canadian Natural, is one of the people responsible for that company’s emissions reduction projects. He’s also a member of COSIA’s low carbon heat and power working group, made up of Pathways Alliance member experts who pool their knowledge and expertise to advance a common goal – a low-carbon future for Canada.

In the search for low-carbon technologies, NGD is a frontrunner. “We’re identifying promising NGD technologies that strike an ideal balance between producing a low-carbon, hydrogen-rich fuel and a valuable carbon by product that can be sold to other industries,” Elliott explains.

Carbon dioxide and the oil sands

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) is the greenhouse gas (GHG) most commonly associated with emissions and climate change. In the oil sands, CO₂ is generated by the natural gas that’s burned to supply steam for in situ (underground) facilities. The steam heats up the bitumen in the oil sands reservoir, reducing its viscosity (thickness) so it can be pumped to surface facilities for processing. Natural gas is also used in oil sands mining operations to heat the water used to separate the bitumen from sand and other minerals.

Although natural gas is cleaner burning than other fossil fuels, it still produces some GHG emissions. “We’re finding ways to create low-carbon steam through a suite of carbon reduction technologies that includes NGD,” Elliott says.

Natural gas decarbonization explained

Natural gas decarbonization technologies remove carbon from natural gas before it’s burned through a chemical process that works by splitting natural gas into its components: hydrogen and solid carbon. Hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel, has been trialed as a substitute for natural gas. It could potentially be used as a transportation fuel in the oil sands too.

Innovators around the world are exploring ways to convert solid carbon into products like tires, plastics and building materials and grow the carbon market. One carbon by-product, carbon fibre, a strong, lightweight material, is already used in aerospace, automobiles and bicycles.

What’s happening at the Pathways Alliance

Pathways Alliance members have been scanning the innovation landscape for NGD technologies, identifying and progressing promising candidates. “All the assessments that have been conducted to date have been on a small scale,” Elliott explains. “The next step is to pilot a technology to see how it performs and whether it will scale up for commercial deployment.”

NGD could be a game-changer and the environmental benefits could extend to other industries too, he says. “NGD technologies can be used anywhere natural gas is burned.”

All told, the Pathways Alliance is developing and deploying more than 70 emerging technologies to drive sustainable development of the oil sands and support Canada’s efforts to meet its emissions targets.

Learn more about the Pathways Alliance plan here.