May 16, 2024

Learn about Bitumen Beyond Combustion and the potential economic and environmental advantages.

Already a raw material for fuel used by Canadian aircraft around the world, new uses for bitumen being researched by the oil sands industry could soon improve the fuel economy – and reduce the emissions – needed to take airline passengers to their destinations.

Bitumen is not just an excellent source of combustible energy that fuels today’s transportation for Canadians; it could also become a growing source of manufactured products. These include carbon fibre, which among thousands of uses, sharply reduces the weight of airplane parts.

“We find ourselves in an enviable position where we are not only one of the world’s most responsible energy producers, but also one of the most globally significant suppliers of materials for such things as roads, planes, race cars and even stronger hockey sticks,” said Stephen Arseniuk, Director of Net Zero Planning & Strategic Initiatives at Pathways Alliance.

Developing carbon fibres, asphalt for roads and hard carbon for batteries is a major area of Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC) research for the alliance of Canada’s six largest oil sands companies and Alberta Innovates, the province’s leading innovation agency.

Here’s a look at BBC and its potential:

Why is bitumen ideal for these products?
Bitumen is a sticky, viscous form of petroleum. The largest natural deposit in the world is in the Athabasca oil sands, where it is trapped in sand. Bitumen in the region was first documented in 1787 by the explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie. He noted the Indigenous groups in the region used it to waterproof their canoes.

Bitumen from the oil sands currently is a raw material used to produce crude oil. Before it can become an everyday product, bitumen undergoes significant processing. It’s broken down into light gas oil, heavy gas oil and naphtha, the three main parts of crude oil. Turning bitumen into petroleum products used every day, creates greenhouse gases (GHGs) through the heat and other energy required to extract it from oil sands, upgrade it to crude oil and refine it into commercial products.

Bitumen beyond combustion
In 2016, Alberta Innovates – a provincial agency focused on finding new technologies and innovations with a potential benefit to the province — began researching Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC).

The program encourages the development of technologies that can take our valuable bitumen reserves and use them to create new materials and new products without burning the bitumen. The central concept of the BBC strategy is to divert the heavy fraction in bitumen away from fuels production, and instead use it to generate materials and products with growing demand around the world.

Examples of BBC products could include carbon fibres, high-quality asphalts, activated carbon, carbon nanotubes, graphene, polyurethanes, polycarbonates, and controlled-release fertilizers.
Several companies in Pathways Alliance are pursuing this opportunity by participating in research projects with Alberta Innovates as well as the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN).

“While there will still be significant demand for sustainably produced Canadian oil for decades to come, it’s vital for the long-term future of our industry to find long-term uses of our abundant supply of bitumen,” said Kendall Dilling, president of Pathways Alliance. “Bitumen from the oil sands is one of the best source materials for many of these kinds of products.”

Environmental benefits
BBC products offer significant environmental benefits in reducing GHG emissions in the oil sands. They also have the potential to reduce downstream GHG emissions by decreasing the weight of parts used in vehicles and aircraft.

Economic benefits
BBC products can increase the value and profitability of oil sands production by creating new or expanded markets for bitumen-derived products. These products also add value to each barrel of bitumen by using the heavy and asphaltene-rich fractions that are usually discounted or discarded.

BBC products could also allow for oil sands production to be maintained or expanded while meeting climate goals. Developing these products could offset the potential decline for combustion-based products, such as fuels.

BBC products beyond carbon fibre

Asphalt binder
Alberta bitumen makes a superior asphalt binder because it contains less waxy material than asphalt binder made from other crude. This allows the binder from Alberta bitumen to last longer, with less cracking, leading to less reconstruction (cost savings and emissions avoidance from road reconstruction activities). This is particularly important in an era with more electric vehicles on the roads as they tend to be heavier than internal combustion vehicles and heavier vehicles increase wear and tear on roadways.

“There is a strong market for using bitumen as an asphalt binder, which is mixed with gravel to produce roads. And we’ll continue to need roads whether drivers are using internal-combustion or electric vehicles,” Arseniuk says.

Bitumen has very good revenue potential as asphalt binder currently has the largest market of all the BBC products being researched. Many existing refineries are set up to produce asphalt binder.

Up to half of a barrel of bitumen produced from Alberta’s oil sands can be used as asphalt binder.

Beyond demonstrating superior quality of these bitumen-derived asphalt binders, the next most pressing challenge it to develop more cost-effective ways of transporting asphalt binder long distances at ambient temperatures.

Alberta Innovates has a project where it is building several kilometres of test tracks from the asphalt binder produced from bitumen to compare them with conventional asphalt.

Hard carbon
Hard carbon is a critical component for sodium-ion batteries and in supercapacitors, which are used for energy storage and as part of emerging smart grids and renewable energy systems.

While the current demand for hard carbon is below 3,000 tonnes per year, the market is growing rapidly and could have potential in the billions of dollars.

Challenges and opportunities
Some of the main challenges and opportunities for BBC include:

• Developing cost-effective and scalable processes for extracting, separating, and converting oil sands constituents, such as asphaltenes, into BBC products
• Building partnerships and collaborations among stakeholders across the value chain
• Creating market demand and acceptance for BBC products
• Aligning BBC with environmental policies and regulations and demonstrating its contribution to achieving net-zero goals and reducing GHG emissions

Alberta Innovates is leading the way in advancing BBC research and development through various initiatives and programs. The Bitumen Beyond Combustion Phase 3 program supports projects that aim to produce carbon fibre from oil sands asphaltenes at the pilot scale. Pathways Alliance members are supporting Phase 3 by separating and supplying the asphaltenes as part of their in-kind contribution to the program.

BBC research activity from Pathways Alliance companies
Imperial Oil has an in-house bitumen beyond combustion research facility in Sarnia, Ontario with a goal of creating feedstock for carbon fibre, with a pilot underway. It is also collaborating with Alberta Innovates and Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) by providing samples from its upstream operations to an asphaltene bank to enable researchers from Canadian universities to access the samples and test the feasibility of alternative products.

Canadian Natural provided industrial samples to the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a $15 million competition led by Alberta Innovates designed to accelerate the development of carbon fibre from bitumen-derived asphaltenes. Work is also ongoing with vendors to develop technology to convert bitumen into activated carbon, asphalt binder, graphene, graphite and carbon fibre.

To learn more about the research on BBC, read the Alberta Innovates white paper on the subject, published in 2023.