A professor at the University of Calgary has accidentally stumbled on what could be a solution for Alberta’s pipeline problems.
Ian Gates, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, discovered a way to convert bitumen into a pill like form while attempting to upgrade the substance, according to an article from the University of Calgary.
In the article, Gates explains that the pellets can be created without the use of expensive additives or equipment, instead relying on the bitumen itself to self-seal. This process would take the same amount of time that preparing the bitumen for liquid transport takes, and drastically reduce the dangers of a spill.
Instead of relying on pipelines to get the product to the coast, the pellets could be packaged into barrels and shipped using the various railway lines that span the continent, many of which have gone into disuse with the vanishing coal industry.
“There are thousands of these railcars built for coal that are now sitting idle,” Gates says in the article. “When you look at those railcars as very cheap transport, that’s a few hundred thousand barrels a day that could be transported, using solid-phase bitumen, to markets throughout the planet.”
Innovate Calgary, the technology-transfer and business-incubation centre for the University of Calgary, partnered with Gates to commercialize the discovery.
According to their website, the bitumen pellets can become buoyant with the addition of gas bubbles, making them easily retrievable in the case of a water spill. It also states that the outer layer of the pellets are significantly less harmful to the environment than a spill of liquidized bitumen.
The pellets have their patent pending, according to Innovate Calgary, and with all the controversy surrounding Alberta’s pipelines, a new (though in some ways, old) way of transport via railway may just be the solution.